Is It Time for the Pittsburgh Steelers to Move on From Heath Miller?
Tight ends get called “security blankets” like supermodels get called hot. Just wait until September and, if you can bear it, really take a dive into the deep wisdom of NFL commentators. You’ll hear the security blanket reference mid-way through the first quarter of the first game of the NFL season. You’ll appreciate my scientifically sarcastic analysis then, I promise.
But even though we have to endure the tight end security blanket trope in spite of our love for watching the game of pigskin, there is some truth to this notion, which I begrudgingly admit. Tight ends, pre-Tony Gonzalez, historically served primarily as pass protectors, with some minor role for catching short passes in low volume.
Since Gonzalez, however, the tight end position has morphed into that of various sub-species: those who primarily block and never catch passes, those who primarily catch passes but suck at blocking (lookin’ at you Jimmy Graham), and those who do both well.
Heath Miller was a beneficiary of the Gonzalez revolution at tight end, getting work in as a pass protector and as a key cog in the Steelers’ receiving machine since 2005. His reputation is that of, you guessed it, a security blanket to Ben Roethlisberger, who apparently serves as Linus in this narrative.
But how good has Miller actually been over the course of his career? And do his more recent numbers reflect a player with gas left in the tank? Let’s find out.
Using our signature metric for determining on-field production and effectiveness, Net Expected Points (NEP), we can find what Miller has provided for Pittsburgh in his career.
For those unfamiliar, NEP quantifies the points contributed above or below expectations by a player. NEP accounts for a range of factors to create said expectation on any given play, including the specific down, yardage to go for first down, historical performances in similar situations, etc. You can learn about NEP in greater detail in our glossary.
|Season||Receptions||Reception NEP||Targets||Reception NEP per Target||Rank|
|2005||39||38.4||52||0.74||6 of 25|
|2006||34||34.33||55||0.62||9 of 22|
|2007||47||55.21||61||0.91||1 of 26|
|2008||48||41.72||65||0.64||14 of 27|
|2009||76||66.16||98||0.68||11 of 27|
|2010||42||33.44||67||0.5||25 of 32|
|2011||51||50.9||74||0.69||10 of 28|
|2012||71||81.43||101||0.81||2 of 33|
|2013||58||36.02||78||0.46||26 of 29|
|2014||66||55.74||91||0.61||13 of 27|
|Career||532||493.35||742||0.66||12 of 28 (average)|
According to NEP, Miller has been a slightly above average tight end with flashes of brilliance in 2007 and 2012 coupled with flashes of impotence in 2010 and 2013.
In 2007 and 2012, Miller actually finished first and second, respectively, in the NFL in per target efficiency among tight ends receiving over 50 targets -- no small feat considering Gonzalez was still a force to be reckoned with in both of those seasons, and Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski had already begun to make their presence felt as elite tight ends starting with their rookie seasons in 2010.
Miller also possesses one commodity which all NFL coaches and franchises seek: durability. Having missed only seven games since 2005, Miller’s security blanket reputation may be well-earned due to his near constant presence on the field for a decade.
Blanket Wearing Thin
Miller’s 2010 season seemed to be an aberration up until that point in his career. He achieved only a 0.50 Reception NEP per target, a mark that ranked just 25th among the 32 tight ends with at least 50 targets in that season. But after two bounce back seasons in 2011 and 2012, Miller’s trajectory isn’t looking good based on his more recent numbers.
After compiling his worst season in per-target efficiency in 2013 with a 0.46 Reception NEP per target, Miller did improve on that metric in 2014 (0.61), but still didn’t quite reach the league average since 2005 among tight ends with at least 50 targets in a given season (0.62).
The Steelers’ offense in terms of skill positions has undergone a less than subtle makeover in recent years by shedding Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall for the much more effective tag team of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. But so far, this positive restructuring hasn’t eaten into Miller’s typical target volume; in fact, in both his 2013 and 2014 seasons, Miller actually exceeded his career average in targets (74). He just hasn't been able to do as much with those targets as he had been previously in his career.
In other words, for the last couple of seasons Big Ben might have still been hanging on to the notion that his security blanket kept him warm at night, but the odds are that the stuffed animals around him made his blanket seem thicker than it actually was.
While Miller’s time with the Steelers has been productive, and at times top of the class, his days as a primary, difference-making weapon in the Pittsburgh offense are likely numbered. With Markus Wheaton entering his third season, and the hyper-efficient Martavis Bryant entering his second season, the wide receiving corps in Pittsburgh is looking quite formidable. Add to that the Steelers using a third-round pick to draft Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates, and a fifth-round pick to draft the mammoth 6’7’’ tight end Jesse James out of Penn State, the opportunity outlook for Miller becomes much scarcer if either one of these four really begins showing his chops in 2015.
But while Miller’s decline in the last two years is likely indicative of a larger trend in terms of real football, in terms of fantasy football, Miller may be a good streaming option depending on the opponent. James is unlikely to replace Miller at the tight end position in 2015 as he begins his NFL development, so Miller will likely, at the very least, have a lock on the starting gig for at least one more season. Assuming the defense is well below average at defending tight ends, then Miller will likely serve you well on targeted Sundays.
Just don’t expect Miller to put up consistently elite numbers like he did in 2012 because those days are over. The Steelers have slowly begun their transition away from Miller, and based on his more recent numbers, that transition makes sense.
Every kid eventually loses their blanket as they grow up. Some just take it harder than others.