Steelers Looking Closely At Tight Ends

It's not only the premier tight ends such as Maxx Williams and Clive Walford who interest the Steelers in Indy.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Maxx Williams has spent the 20 years of his life following in his professional football-playing father's footsteps. And landing in Pittsburgh would continue that journey for one of the top tight ends in this year's draft.

Brian Williams, born and raised in Mt. Lebanon, went off to the University of Minnesota before becoming a first-round draft pick of the New York Giants in 1989 and playing center for nine years. NFL Combine Coverage
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While at Minnesota, Brian, whose father Bob played quarterback at Notre Dame, met and married a volleyball player, Rochele, whose father and brother played football for the Golden Gophers. Brian and Rochele gave birth to Maxx, and made sure to put two Xs in his name.

"To be unique," says Maxx.

Maxx followed his father as a Golden Gopher, and this week has a formal meeting scheduled with Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin. So it's possible Williams could complete the family circle.

But Williams isn't the only tight end in whom the Steelers are showing interest. A few hours after Steelers GM Kevin Colbert bemoaned the lack of all-around tight ends coming out of college spread offenses, several tight ends said they have been shown interest from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Williams is one. Miami's Clive Walford, Notre Dame's Ben Koyack and Penn State's Jesse James met with the Steelers on Tuesday night. Florida State's Nick O'Leary and Oklahoma's Blake Bell were scheduled to meet with them Wednesday night. And those are just the tight ends who showed up for media interviews on Wednesday.


It's certainly a position of need for a team that has only one tight end with any experience, and that being 32-year-old Heath Miller. The rest are either free agents or practice-squad players.

"It goes back to the spread offenses. There are less-traditional tight ends," Colbert said. "Does a guy have a certain size, athleticism, toughness, strength to be an on-the-line blocker? Sometimes you don't see it, so you have to make a guesstimate to what they can and can't do. That position is becoming less and less a prominent position in college."

So, Colbert was asked, does that make him want to re-sign free-agent Matt Spaeth?

"Wouldn't mind that," Colbert said with a chuckle.

In the meantime, the Steelers are examining this year's college crop closely. Williams is considered a late-first, early-second round prospect. He measured 6-4, 249 with hands (10 3/8) that are bigger than even Kelvin Benjamin's (10 1/4). Williams used those mitts to catch 61 passes for 986 yards (16.2 avg.) and score 13 touchdowns in two seasons at Minnesota. He was All-America, All-Big Ten and Academic All-America. He blocked in-line and as an H-back and fullback and made highlight-reel plays such as a one-handed grab while running deep down a sideline and a hurdle of a defensive back in the last game he played. In fact, Williams hurdled two Missouri players on his way to that 54-yard touchdown.

"In the bowl game, when I had the double hurdle, it came to my mind that I saw the guy earlier in the game," Williams said. "He hit me low, one of the d-backs. I figure it was the last game of the year so I might as well go for the hurdle and keep going. Second guy came and at that point I knew I wanted to score in my last game, so I went for it again. I was fortunate it worked out for me."

Williams said the player he emulates in the NFL is "Jason Witten. He's a complete tight end in my opinion. He blocks. He runs routes. He makes plays for his team. That's what I want to be. I want to go to the NFL and be a complete tight end and make plays with my hands, but also in the run game by making complete blocks."

That would suit the Steelers, particularly if they find themselves without a defensive player of value at pick number 22.

The Steelers are also looking at Walford, a second-round prospect who dominated Senior Bowl practices with his receiving skills. Walford said he played at "85 to 90 percent" that week with a knee injury and opted not to play in the game.

During the season Walford caught 44 passes for 676 yards (15.4 avg.) and seven touchdowns. Walford measured 6-4, 251 here and also has large 10 1/4-inch hands.

"I am the best tight end in this draft," he boasted. "Because I can block, I can catch, I can run after the catch, do everything that a tight end is expected to do."

Walford said he emulates Rob Gronkowski among NFL tight ends because of "him running with the ball after the catch, making crucial blocks, pass protecting, pretty much everything. He’s an all-around tight end."

O'Leary is probably more of a third-round prospect after measuring 6-3, 252 here, but dismissed criticism about a lack of height by saying, "You can watch my tape. I caught a lot of balls in the red zone."

O'Leary scored 13 touchdowns the last two seasons. Jameis Winston was his quarterback during that span and O'Leary caught 81 passes for 1,175 yards, which isn't too shabby for a guy who, as the grandson of golf legend Jack Nicklaus, could've tried to play a much softer sport.

"Golf would have been better on my body," O'Leary said with a laugh. "I just love football. I love the contact."

The best advice Nicklaus gave his grandson was "all about carrying yourself," O'Leary said. "We talk more as grandfather to grandson."

Considering the Steelers' defensive needs, they're more likely to draft a tight end in the later rounds. Someone such as Bell, a former quarterback at Oklahama who moved to tight end a year ago, might be a valued "sleeper."

"I've made the switch completely," said the 6-6 Bell. "I felt like I was getting better each and every game as the year went on. Even in the East-West Shrine game I felt like I was making big strides, so, yeah, fully, fully a tight end now. There's no more quarterback any more."

Bell was Landry Jones' backup in 2011-12 and became one of the most successful "wildcat" quarterbacks in the college game. The "Bell-dozer" scored 24 touchdowns in those two years and naturally gave the credit to the offensive line.

"Most of the time I walked into the end zone," he said. But as a player who weighed 263 pounds at the Shrine Game, Bell was always a handful to tackle.

For the combine, Bell got his weight down to 252 in the hope he can run a 4.7 40. He feels that would enhance his stock. As will the way he was used as an all-around tight end this past season.

"Absolutely," he said with a knowing smile.

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