Steelers updated position outlook: tight end

PITTSBURGH -- This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our second look is at a position that returns four players from last season.


Who is new: Rob Blanchflower. The seventh-round draft choice out of Massachusetts has a real chance of making the team despite the glut of players in front of him.

Who is gone: David Johnson. Injuries limited the 2009 seventh-round pick to five games in his final two seasons with the Steelers. Johnson signed a two-year contract with the Chargers in March.

Returning starter: Heath Miller. One of the most respected players in the Steelers’ locker room returned to the field a little more than nine months after reconstructive knee surgery. Miller, one of the best all-around tight ends in the NFL, will become a bigger part of the passing game assuming he is back to full strength for the start of 2014.

Most significant addition: Blanchflower. The Steelers really like this under-the-radar prospect who set UMass’ record for career receiving yards by a tight end (1,164). Blanchflower can block as well as catch passes, and tight ends coach James Daniels said, “He has a high level of aggression.”

Most significant loss: Johnson. He wasn’t flashy but he did a lot of little things that don’t show up in box scores. Johnson could line up in the backfield as well as provide blocking as an inline tight end. He also played special teams.

On outside looking in: David Paulson or Michael Palmer. The former is a pass-catching tight end who is not much of a blocker. The latter does not add much to the passing game but is a solid blocker. If Blanchflower plays his way onto the 53-man roster, Paulson and Palmer are likely battling for one spot.

Hidden number: Miller caught 58 passes in 2013 but just one of those resulted in a touchdown. The previous season, when he was at full strength, Miller caught a career-high eight touchdown passes in 15 games. He also had a career-high 816 yards on 71 receptions.

Outlook: Having a healthy Miller at the start of the season will be huge for the Steelers and particularly their passing game. Don’t overlook having Matt Spaeth for an entire season too after the eight-year veteran missed all but four games in 2013 because of a foot injury. Miller and Spaeth make a terrific blocking tandem, and the Steelers averaged 115.3 rushing yards in the four games they played together -- almost 20 yards higher than their season average. There aren’t a lot of pass-catching options after Miller so keeping the 2012 team MVP healthy is paramount for the Steelers.