April 19, 2009
By Donald Starver
This is part 4 in a series. If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below.
In the previous installments in this series, we’ve looked at the offensive line positions. Now we’re going to take a look at the receiving positions, starting with the tight end.
The tight end position is one of the most versatile positions on the football field. A tight end may be asked to block a linebacker on one play, catch a pass downfield on the next, and then line up in the backfield and lead block for a running back on the following play. No other position has so many responsibilities. The tight end is part offensive lineman, part wide receiver, and part fullback.
Unfortunately, the athletes who play the position don’t tend to be as versatile as the position itself. Most modern tight ends are either skilled pass receivers, or skilled blockers. Few tight ends excel in both. That is why most teams tend to carry 3 tight ends on their roster. One tight end may be primarily a receiver, another may be primarily a blocker, and the third will excel in whichever aspect of the tight end position the team tends to emphasize. Fortunately, the Steelers’ Heath Miller is one of the few tight ends who is both an excellent receiver and an excellent blocker.
It is probably unfair, but tight ends tend to get recognition only for their pass catching skills. That is why fans can quickly name tight ends like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, and Kellen Winslow Jr. Moreover, tight ends who are primarily pass catchers tend to get paid more than tight ends who are primarily blockers.
One of the best blocking tight ends in NFL history played for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Former Steeler Mark Bruener could go head-to-head with just about any defensive end in the league and hold his own. Bruener also had good mobility, and could lead block on running plays. Bruener’s game was perfectly suited to the Steelers’ power running attack. However, despite his blocking prowess, Bruener never received the accolades that his pass-catching counterparts did.
What a team looks for in a tight end is dependent on how they use their tight end. The criterion will differ from team to team. Thus, a tight end who is ranked at the top of one team’s draft board might not even be listed on another team’s board.
The Steelers are in very good shape at the tight end position and will probably not select a tight end in the draft. Heath Miller is one of the best tight ends in the league, and seems perfectly suited to play for the Steelers. If the Steelers could have engineered a prototype tight end, he would have been eerily similar to Heath Miller.
Some fans may not realize that the Steelers are fortunate enough to have two John Mackey Award winners on their roster. The John Mackey Award is given annually to the best tight end in college football. Heath Miller won the award in 2004 while playing for Virginia, and Matt Spaeth won it in 2006 when he played for Minnesota.
Spaeth is not the skilled blocker that Miller is, but he has excellent hands, and is a very big target in the red zone. At 6’7″, Spaeth is the Steelers’ tallest receiver.
Rounding out the Steelers’ tight end list is Sean McHugh. While McHugh is technically a tight end, he rarely sees action in that capacity. Instead, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians utilizes McHugh as the primary fullback in the Steelers’ offense.
It is highly unlikely that the Steelers will draft a tight end this year. The Steelers’ tight ends are a relatively young group. Sean McHugh is the oldest of the bunch, and he has only been in the league for 6 years. Both McHugh and Miller will be 27 years old during the 2009 season.
The class of 2009 has quite a few noteworthy tight ends. There is both quality and depth to at the position. However, since the position is not a need for the Steelers, we will only mention a few players.
Brandon Pettigrew (6’5″, 257 lbs.), Oklahoma State. Pettigrew is undoubtedly the best blocker in this years’ tight end class. He is a big, physical blocker who excels in getting to the second level and picking off linebackers. He wasn’t used much in the passing game, so he will need work in this area. He lacks top flight speed, but seems to have the athleticism to become a competent pass catcher..
Travis Beckum (6’3″, 237 lbs.), Wisconsin. Beckum is probably the most accomplished receiver in this years’ tight end class. He is an exceptional athlete with great leaping ability and very soft hands. He is rather light for a tight end, and is built more like an overgrown receiver. Has suffered injuries, and needs to prove that durability is not a concern.
James Casey (6’4″, 235 lbs.), Rice. Casey is a unique athlete who will probably be drafted much higher than his on-field experience indicates he should be. Casey played baseball in the Chicago White Sox farm system before going to Rice. While at Rice, he has taken snaps at both quarterback and running back, and has lined up at seven different positions in one game. I’m sure some scout will over-value Casey’s athleticism, and forget the fact that Casey actually has very little experience playing tight end. His experience blocking from the tight end position is almost nonexistent.
(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)