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Steelers Training Camp: Tight ends

August 22, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players, training camp

August 22, 2009
By Donald Starver

This is Part 8 in a series.  If you haven’t read the previous installments, please click below:

Part 1:  Defensive linemen

Part 2:  Linebackers

Part 3:  Safeties

Part 4: Cornerbacks

Part 5: Quarterbacks

Part 6: Running backs

Part 7: Wide receivers

Tight end is the next position up as we attempt to look at each position on the Steelers and predict which players will make the final 53-man roster.

Since becoming head coach, Mike Tomlin has always carried 3 tight ends on the roster.  We are going to operate under the assumption that this year will be no different.

The Steelers took 5 tight ends into training camp; Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Sean McHugh, Dezmond Sherrod, and rookie David Johnson.  Let’s look at them one at a time.

Heath Miller - I was a very happy man when I heard that the Steelers had extended Heath Miller’s contract.  Though underutilized, Miller is crucial to the Steelers’ offense.  He is one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL (which is important in a run oriented offense like the Steelers’), and he also has great hands.

It has always amazed me how Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians seems to love tight ends, and he loves the passing game, yet he can’t find a way to get the ball to Heath Miller more often.  Nevertheless, Steelers fans know that when Arians does call Miller’s number, Heath is going to deliver.

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Matt Spaeth - Not many teams have two John Mackey Award winners on their roster, but that is exactly what the Steelers have.  The John Mackey Award is given annually to the best tight end in college football.  Heath Miller won the award in 2004, and Matt Spaeth won it in 2006.

Big Ben has publicly stated that he likes throwing to tall receivers, and at 6’7″, Spaeth is a very tall target.  Moreover, Spaeth has excellent hands.  Unfortunately, Spaeth is only an average (okay, below average) blocker.  That means that he will probably never be a starter for the Steelers.

Sean McHugh - McHugh was signed by the Steelers in 2008 after being released by the Detroit Lions.  While he has been the Steelers third tight end, he is their primary fullback.  Bruce Arians believes in using a tight end as an H-back, rather than using a traditional fullback for blocking purposes.

Perhaps this offensive philosophy has contributed to the decline in the Steelers running game (though most of the blame probably belongs to the offensive line).  Willie Parker has stated that he prefers running behind a traditional fullback, and that he misses former Steeler Dan Kreider.

McHugh played in 15 regular season games last year and caught a total of 3 passes, so it is clear that he is not viewed as a viable component of the Steelers passing game.  However, as long as he is the best blocking option on the Steelers’ roster, he will maintain his spot on the roster.

Which brings us to……….

David Johnson - The rookie out of Arkansas State is clearly the best blocker among the Steelers’ tight ends.  As I watched the Steelers’ tight ends doing blocking drills at training camp, Johnson jumped out at me.  Firstly, when they did blocking drills with the blocking sled, Johnson consistently drove the sled back farther than any of the other tight ends, including Heath Miller.  Moreover, when Johnson hit the sled there was always a loud popping sound that sounded like an explosion.  It was that sound that made me start paying attention to the tight end blocking drills in the first place.

Besides excelling at clobbering blocking sleds, Johnson did something that almost never happens at Steelers training camp.  I watched him stop James Harrison’s bull rush dead in his tracks.  For those of you who have never been to Steelers training camp, when James Harrison goes up against any blocker, it is pretty much like watching Germany battle France during World War II; Harrison wins in devastating fashion.  But that was not necessarily the case against Johnson.

Johnson plays at essentially the same weight as Sean McHugh, but he is 3 inches shorter.  That means that he is stockier and more powerfully built.  Based on the fact that McHugh was used almost exclusively as a blocker, I believe that Johnson has a very good chance of supplanting McHugh as the Steelers’ H-back.

Dezmond Sherrod- The fifth tight end battling for a spot on the Steelers’ roster is Dezmond Sherrod.  Sherrod spent 2008 on the Steelers’ practice squad, and is now hoping to earn a spot on the active roster.  Unfortunately, Sherrod finds himself in a precarious position.  He is not as good a pass catcher as Heath Miller or Matt Spaeth, and he is not as good a blocker as Sean McHugh or David Johnson.  This leaves Sherrod little chance of making the team.

So in summary, I believe that the Steelers are going to enter the 2009 season with Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, and David Johnson as their tight ends.  What do you fans think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Let me hear your comments.

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Colbert takes advice from Steelers Today

February 26, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

I hate to blow my own horn, but I’m going to do it anyway.  I wrote a 3-part series called “If I were Kevin Colbert”, that predicted everything that has happened during the Steelers’ free agency period.  If you haven’t already read that series, please go back and do so.    Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 can be found here.

In that series, I predicted that the Steelers would sign Max Starks to a whopping contract for the second year in a row.  I predicted that they would let Marvel Smith go.  I predicted that they would make an offer to Willie Colon, but that they wouldn’t do the same for Chris Kemoeatu.  I predicted that Anthony Smith would be let go.  Mitch Berger too.  I even predicted that they would let Arnold Harrison go, while resigning Anthony Madison and Sean McHugh to modest contracts.

A couple of things that I predicted have not yet happened.  I said that Bryant McFadden and Nate Washington would both receive offers that were too rich for the Steelers’ tastes, and they’d both be with new teams next year.  That hasn’t happened yet, but it will.

The one thing that surprised me is that the Steelers released Kendall Simmons.  He still has time left on his contract, so they didn’t have to make a move with him yet.  Either their doctors are telling them something that we don’t know, or they just don’t think he’s worth what he’s making. 

To be honest, even BEFORE Simmons hurt his ACL this past year, he was a revolving door on the offensive line.  He may as well have layed out a welcome mat for defensive linemen, he was so accomodating to their needs.  And 2007 was an even worse year for him.  He sucked.  He looked more like a matador than an offensive lineman.  Mike Tomlin obviously noticed that too.  Oh well.  See ya later, Kendall.

The bottom line is that Steelers’ Director of Football Operations, Kevin Colbert, obviously reads Steelers Today.  He did everything that we said that he should do, and we couldn’t be any happier.

By the way, Mr. Colbert, our consulting bill is in the mail.  Please pay promptly.

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If I were Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert (Part 2)

February 10, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

February 10, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note: This is the second installment in a three-part series.  If you haven’t already read the first part, please click here.

After dealing with the offensive linemen, Bryant McFadden, and Nate Washington, the next position that Kevin Colbert is going to have to turn his attention to is backup quarterback.  Both Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch are unrestricted free agents.  The Steelers will still have Dennis Dixon under contract, but they probably won’t feel comfortable placing the Steelers’ season on his inexperienced shoulders if Big Ben gets hurt.  Thus, resigning either Leftwich or Batch is going to be imperative.

At this point in their careers, there is no doubt that Byron Leftwich is the better quarterback.  However, Leftwich is only one year older than Ben Roethlisberger, and he thinks he still has a future as a starter in the NFL.  He knows that he won’t get to compete for that position with the Steelers, so he will probably choose to go elsewhere.

Charlie Batch, on the other hand, is from the Pittsburgh area, and he would like to spend the rest of his career with the Steelers.  He understand that he has the ideal job.  He gets to collect Super Bowl rings with the team that he grew up cheering for, make more money than most people can even dream of making, and rarely have to even get his jersey dirty.  Not a bad deal for a 34 year old quarterback.  Unlike Byron Leftwich, Batch knows that his days as a starter are over, and he will do whatever it takes to stay with the Steelers.  He’s going to tell his agent to get this deal done.

So next year, I’d expect to enter the season with Ben as the starter, Batch as the backup, and the Steelers will probably bring in an undrafted free agent or a 6th or 7th round draft pick to compete with Dennis Dixon for the third string quarterback position.

The final unrestricted free agent that the Steelers will have to take care of is Keyaron Fox.  Fox will probably never be a starting linebacker for the Steelers.  However, he is a very competent backup, and a terror on special teams.  Fox emerged as one of my favorite Steelers, and that is difficult to do as primarily a special teamer.  But the Steelers were terrible on special teams for quite some time, and Fox has been a big factor in their turnaround.    With a salary of less than $500,000, Fox was one of the better values on the Steelers’ roster.

After languishing for years in that football Hell called the Kansas City Chiefs, Fox probably understands that he has a great situation in Pittsburgh.  He is a valued contributor on a team that has the potential to win more Super Bowl rings.  Moreover, he sees that the Rooneys run a class organization.  My guess is that he will want to remain a Steeler.   I also believe that Kevin Colbert and the Steelers coaching staff will want to see him stay as well.  Thus, this deal should get done quickly and quietly.

With the unrestricted free agents taken care of, Colbert will turn his attention to the restricted free agents.  We’ve already discussed Willie Colon in Part 1 of this series.  After him, the most visible restricted free agent is Anthony Smith.  When Smith was drafted, I had high hopes for him.  However, his act has worn thin.  He has never really shown anything on the field (except that he is easily fooled by a pump fake).  Fans and coaches won’t soon forget his silly prediction against the New England Patriots a few years back.  They also won’t forget watching Tom Brady throw touchdown after touchdown at Smith’s expense.  Smith just doesn’t seem to understand that his role is to be the last line of defense, and that he can’t bite on every pump fake that quarterbacks throw at him.

Frankly, I want to see Smith leave because I am tired of watching him try to take his own receivers’ heads off during training camp.  I don’t know why he thinks that he can prove his worth by showing how hard he can hit his own teammates.  The Steelers can’t afford to lose Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, or Nate Washington  to injury because Anthony Smith was trying to prove how tough he is.  Everybody but Smith understands this simple point.  Besides, can anyone ever remember seeing Anthony Smith get a good hit on ANY player who wasn’t wearing black and gold?  Ever?  Even once?  Neither can I.  Goodbye Anthony.  don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The 3 remaining restricted free agents are LB Arnold Harrison, TE/FB Sean McHugh, and CB Anthony Madison.  None of these players are going to get much attention in free agency.  Harrison might be able to get some attention as a special teamer or as a backup LB, but that’s about it.  All of them will be best served doing everything that they can to stay with the Steelers.  Afterall, if they want to win additional championships, there aren’t many organizations that give them a better opportunity to do so than the Steelers.

In my opinion, losing any of these players won’t be a major loss to the organization.  Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has a tight end fetish, and he collects as many of them as he possibly can.  Therefore, he is likely to try to keep McHugh, even though most fans would probably prefer to see the Steelers get a legitimate blocking fullback (as opposed to a tight end playing out of position).

Harrison (Arnold, not James) is a good special teams player, and he is a good backup LB.  He has spent several years in Dick LeBeau’s defensive system, and he should know it pretty well by now.  Unfortunately, the Steelers are busting at the seams with talented linebackers.  Lawrence Timmons is going to supplant Larry Foote next year, and Bruce Davis has a lot of potential and will probably move ahead of Arnold Harrison on the depth chart next year if he continues to work hard.  The Steelers will probably keep Harrison if they can sign him for reasonable dollars.  But if he asks for too much money, the Steelers will let him go without losing any sleep.

Anthony Madison is a career special teamer.  Technically, he is a cornerback.  However, in his 3 year career, he has never started a game, has never made an interception, and has never even had a single pass defensed.  He only makes approximately $450,000, so if he is willing to sign a new contract for the same amount, the Steelers will probably keep him around.  However, his position will be one of the most vulnerable come training camp.

That will take care of Colbert’s free agents.  However, his most pressing problem is not his free agents.  He has 9 important players with one year left on their contracts.  Among them are Hines Ward, James Harrison, Heath Miller, Ryan Clark, and Brett Keisel.  We’ll discuss what Kevin Colbert should do with these players in Part 3 of our series.

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