"Yeah, I talked to the Steelers," said A.J. Derby at the Combine. "They were the first team I talked to, actually."
That's how the Pittsburgh Steelers have been rolling this draft season: Are you a tight end? Then, get in line.
The Steelers have treated the tight end prospects in this draft as if they were a pot of gold, from the combine, through pro days and now as they're hosting players at the South Side.
The Steelers do have veterans Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth back, fullback Will Johnson went to tight end meetings last year, Rob Blanchflower spent the season on the practice squad, and veteran Michael Palmer is available for the cost of a minimum-wage contract. But obviously the Steelers feel the need for an upgrade, and they've been checking out all levels of prospect at a position that seems to become more sparse every year.
"I think it goes back to the spread offenses," said GM Kevin Colbert. "There are less-traditional tight ends. 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. It's like the quarterbacks. It makes it a little more difficult to project."
How about finding a quarterback and moving him to tight end? That's what Miller did while at Virginia. Blake Bell did it at Oklahoma. He talked earlier in another story here about the Steelers' interest in him at the Combine. Derby is another quarterback-turned-tight end, and Steelers TEs coach James Daniel told him all about Miller at the Combine.
"It's one of my best things going for me right now," said Derby, who made the move before his senior season at Arkansas. "I know how quarterbacks like to think. I spent four years in pro-style offense learning as a quarterback, so for me that's one of my biggest things going for me right now is I know where they want me to be as a tight end. I'm looking forward to getting on a team and making it happen."
Derby caught 22 passes in a run-oriented Arkansas offense in his first season at the position. At 6-4, 255, the former quarterback not only had to block, but block well.
"I was always a huge quarterback," he said. "I have an older brother who played tight end at Iowa. We've always wrestled, messed around, fought, so -- and I always think I'm bigger and better than he is -- so if he can do it I can do it. That was pretty much my mindset going in and it worked out."
Williams, the son of former Mt. Lebanon (Pa.) and New York Giants player Brian Williams, also spoke in the earlier article about the Steelers' interest. Walford visited the South Side last week. He was one of the top playmakers for Miami last season with 44 catches for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. He ran a 4.79 40 at the Combine and had a vertical jump of 35 inches.
"I have a great ability to jump," Walford said. "So, in the red zone I use my body and my jumping ability to go up over the top of defenders and grab the ball."
At the Senior Bowl, Walford looked like a legitimate NFL starter. Is he the best one coming out?
"I am. I am the best tight end in this draft," he said. "Because I can block, I can catch, I can run after the catch, do everything that a tight end is expected to do."
That's exactly what Colbert's looking for, but Williams and Walford may be gone before the Steelers are done fixing defensive holes. A more reasonable expectation might be Ohio State tight end Jeff Heuerman, who also visited the South Side recently.
Heuerman (6-5, 250) played in Ohio State's spread, which made him difficult for Colbert to scout.
"We talked about that," Heuerman said. "But I can do it all. It's on film."
In-line blocking in a spread offense?
"Yeah. Yeah," Heuerman said derisively. "What we had was an awesome offense. It's obviously so successful when you look at the stats and what we've accomplished the last few years there. I was fortunate to play in that offense. It taught me a lot of things. I think it's prepared me a lot for the next level."
The Steelers have also hosted Texas A&M's Cameron Clear (6-6, 252), South Alabama's Wes Saxton (6-3 1/2, 248), Auburn's C.J. Uzomah (6-5, 264) and UAB's Kennard Backman (6-3, 243), and are scheduled to meet with Penn State's Jesse James (6-7, 261).
1. Maxx Williams, 6-4, 249, Minnesota.
2. Clive Walford, 6-4, 251, Miami.
3. Jeff Heuerman, 6-5, 254, Ohio State.
STEELERS' VALUE BOARD
Third Round -- Jeff Heuerman, Ohio State.
Fifth Round -- Wes Saxton, South Alabama.
Seventh Round -- A.J. Derby, Arkansas.
Check out Dave-Te' Thomas' Offensive Draft Value Board.