With Heath Miller Retiring, What's Next at Tight End for the Steelers?
Steeler fans hate the Ravens, and that was no different during last year's NFL Draft.
It was the second round, and Pittsburgh was one spot away from their selection. Maxx Williams, a beastly tight end out of Minnesota, was still on the board -- some folks had him as a first-round pick, and he had slid all the way to pick 55.
It was the perfect match -- the Steelers needed tight end help with an aging Heath Miller continuing to get the starting nod, and Williams, as a Steeler, could sit back and not play a prominent role until Miller was gone.
And then the Ravens ruined everything.
Baltimore, in need of a pass-catcher themselves, traded into the 55 spot, the one just ahead of the Steelers.
They took Williams.
Fast forward eight months, and the Steelers are in an uncomfortable situation. Miller, after 11 seasons in the NFL, has reportedly called it quits.
Filling the Void
Miller never put up monster numbers, but he was consistently good for the Steelers. And consistently above average versus the rest of the tight end field in the NFL.
If you've never been to numberFire before and are unaware of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, let me briefly explain. You see, rather than using simple yardage statistics to show how well a player performed, we use NEP, which looks at down-and-distance situations for players and shows the impact the player makes. Before each play, there's a certain expected point value on a drive. If, on the next play, that expected point value is greater than it was on the previous play, whichever player helped make that happen is credited with the expected point difference -- it would be positive in that case. This is why it's important to note that not all yardage gains are created equal. A gain of 10 on 3rd-and-11, for instance, is a lot less impactful than a gain of 10 on 3rd-and-9.
To read more about NEP, check out our glossary.
There are a lot of ways to measure wide receiver and tight end performance through NEP -- we can look at how well a player did on all targets, how he performed on only his catches, or how he did on a per target basis.
Considering Heath Miller saw a hefty number of targets throughout his career all while staying healthy, he generally ranked high in our Target NEP (points added on all targets) and Reception NEP (points added on catches only) metrics. But what's interesting to note is that he was also pretty efficient, at least versus the league average.
|Year||Reception NEP/Target||League Average||Difference|
During his 11-year career, Miller's Reception NEP per target rate was below the league's average just three times, with two of those seasons came over the last three years.
And speaking of which, it kind of makes sense for Miller to retire at this point in his career.
You may or may not recall, but Miller tore his knee up at the end of the 2012 season, which was one of the best ones of his career. Since that injury, Miller's suffered dramatically in the efficiency department, despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing his most effective football during that time.
Now Heath-less, the Steelers will look to do one of three things: find a player in free agency, draft another tight end to start, or promote from within.
Drafting a tight end and throwing him in to start doesn't make much sense for a team that has high hopes for 2016. After all, history has shown first-year tight ends aren't big contributors.
They could promote from within, which would mean Jesse James, who's entering his second year, would get a big boost in playing time and fantasy football value. James is a 6'7'' freak who compares most to Kevin Boss, per MockDraftable.com.
During his rookie year, James caught 8 of his 11 targets, but he wasn't overly effective with his workload -- he had just a 0.38 Reception NEP per target average, which, as you can see from the table above, was far below the league's norm.
It'd be risky for Pittsburgh -- again, a team looking to do big things next year -- to throw James into a starting role. In turn, it makes sense for them to look at the free agent pool and see who's available.
The best fit -- and this is somewhat subjective -- could be Dwayne Allen, who's not expected to be back in Indianapolis next season. Allen served as the Colts' primary pass-blocking tight end, which is what Pittsburgh will need with the departed Miller: a strong pass-blocker to open things up for a vertical passing attack with incredibly strong weapons.
The Steelers aren't big spenders during the offseason, but we also shouldn't expect Allen, who's only 25, to come with a hefty tag after being injury prone during his young career.
Time will certainly tell. The bottom line is that the Steelers more than likely can't sit tight as is, and as a Super Bowl contender, they'll need some help in free agency.