When assessing the Steelers’ 2016 needs as we head into free agency and the NFL draft, many assumed that tight end wasn’t necessarily a top priority… but one that did need to be addressed.
Heath Miller shocked everyone (except SCB writer Marc who called it a month ago) last week when he quietly announced his retirement. Maybe the organization had some inkling that this was coming, but if they didn’t, they’re now likely scrambling to figure out how to replace Heath Miller’s production in the offense going forward.
I know that many of you reading this are going to hate me saying this, but Jesse James is not ready to be the Steelers’ go-to guy at the tight end position; and frankly, I’m not sure he ever will be. When the Steelers drafted James, I saw him as Matt Spaeth’s replacement, not Heath Miller’s.
I will admit that James performed better than I expected in his rookie season, but doesn’t the fact that everyone thought an 8 catch season was exceeding expectations tell you the bar was set pretty low?
Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m down on James, I just think that his ceiling is a solid 2nd TE option. Maybe 15 years ago James was a starting NFL tight end, but in today’s league you have to have a guy that can put real pressure on a defense as a pass catcher.
So where do the Steelers turn now?
Unfortunately for the Steelers, this draft is really not that strong at the tight end position. I like tight end Hunter Henry, who I profiled a few weeks ago here. I’m in the process of watching tape on Ohio State tight end Nick Vannett that will probably be up later this week.
I worry if the Steelers choose not to address to the position prior to the draft, they could end up reaching for a mediocre option.
While I’ve been a big proponent of Hunter Henry in round 1, as crazy as it sounds, Heath’s retirement has cooled me on that idea. The reason being, I think the team could’ve chanced going into the draft targeting Henry because if they missed out they still had Heath for another year. Now though, they can’t take the risk of putting all their eggs in that basket.
The good news though, is that there is a pretty solid group of options available in free agency, and plenty of guys that I think wouldn’t break the bank. Here are some of my favorites…
Dwayne Allen, Colts
The Colts have Allen and Coby Fleener hitting free agency. I’ve read that while Allen has said he would like to return, it looks like the Colts are more interested in retaining Fleener. Personally, I like Allen better anyway. I don’t see Allen ever having even close to Heath Miller-like upside, but he is a solid all-around option. I’ve seen some that think Allen is going to break the bank but I don’t see it. Allen had a down year, along with most of the Colts team, so his stock isn’t at an all time high. At his best in 2015 he was a solid blocker and receiver, particularly in the redzone, catching 8 touchdowns. Jesse James fans should like this option, as I see Allen as a 1A with James being a 1B type of offense, versus Allen solving all our problems at the position.
Martellus Bennett, Bears
Bennett is still technically on the Bears roster but is a very obvious cap casualty. I was surprised to see that Martellus is still only 28 years old, as it feels like he’s been around forever. Bennett is sort of the opposite of Allen style wise. Both are pretty decent all around, but Bennett (despite his height) isn’t exactly a redzone nightmare for defenses, but has been a high volume target with good hands. His 90 catches for 916 yards in 2015 are impressive numbers for a tight end. Bennett became a go to guy for Jay Cutler, despite some other really talented options on that defense. I imagine Big Ben could make him a pro bowl caliber player again.
Ben Watson, Saints
This feels unlikely to me. I’d rather find a mid-level guy that you’re going to get a few years out of, but if the team wants a guy to come in and hold down the position for a year Watson may be able to do that. Them signing Flozell Adams in their run to the Superbowl in 2010 comes to mind. Watson stepped in for the Saints last year and filled the void left by Jimmy Graham, and did a great job catching 74 passes for 825 yards and 6 touchdowns. The team could save his legs by sharing time with James, and count on the savvy veteran on third downs.
Jermaine Gresham, Cardinals
I’ll admit that living in Cincinnati, I’ve seen a lot of Gresham and I’m not a fan. I wrote as much last season. I don’t really feel any differently, but maybe the Steelers could light a fire under the guy who’s still fairly young and has all the physical attributes you want in a tight end and is a pretty good blocker, which is something the Steelers require.
Outside of the above guys… There are plenty of other options that may interest the Steelers, or simply saturate the market and push the price down on a guy they do like. Ladarius Green, Coby Fleener, Antonio Gates, Zach Miller, Jared Cook, Larry Donnell, Mercedes Lewis, Vernon Davis, Andrew Quarless, Tim Wright, and Logan Paulsen are some of those other guys.