INDIANAPOLIS -- The braintrust of the Pittsburgh Steelers met last Friday morning to talk about free agency when they were interrupted by a knock on the door.
Upon seeing tight ends coach James Daniel outside the door, Mike Tomlin knew right away what it meant.
"Heath's retiring," Tomlin said.
"And," Kevin Colbert relayed to Combine media yesterday, "J.D. said, 'Yep. He told me last night.'"
So Tomlin invited Daniel in and told him to bring Heath Miller along.
"Heath came in and was great," said Colbert, "and he was on his way."
While Colbert and the Steelers may have been startled, they weren't shocked. And because of that they don't have a black hole at the position since they drafted Jesse James as a junior out of Penn State in the fifth round last spring.
"Jesse went through his senior year with us," Colbert said. "He grew physically, he grew mentally, he grew emotionally and as the year went on he was able to help us. And he was night and day different from the preseason when he wasn’t ready, to the regular season, when he was able to contribute.
"Obviously, with Heath out of the mix he will have more opportunities and this will really be his rookie year. We’ll see how he progresses with that."
James caught a touchdown pass in his first game, against Oakland, and finished the regular season with eight catches for 56 yards. In the playoffs, he caught a 22-yard pass in the fourth quarter to move the Steelers to midfield, with a 13-12 lead, but three plays later Fitzgerald Toussaint fumbled and the rest was Denver Broncos history.
"Matt Spaeth's coming off a minor knee surgery," Colbert added about the position. "We still think Matt will be a valuable player for us. Jesse will keep developing. Xavier Grimble, who was on our practice squad all of last year, we liked what he did so he'll be in the mix. And we'll see if we add a vet or if we draft a tight end. I think both options are on the table right now."
Colbert believes there a five or six quality tight ends who could soon become free agents, but that number will be whittled down by the March 9 fiscal new year.
"We'll see who signs (with their own team) in the next couple of weeks," Colbert said. "Once free agency starts there might be two or three. That can change very quickly, whereas (with) the draft that's almost a finite number."
The college tight end prospects will be coming through the media interview room on Thursday. Most are better pass-catchers than blockers, so Colbert was asked if he might just give up on finding the all-around type in lieu of a receiving tight end.
"Well," he said with a sour look on his face, "without a Heath Miller, we still have an Antonio Brown, we still have a Le'Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant, so that tight end, I don't know how big a part they will be. It depends on their abilities and their abilities to contribute within our group. They might contribute more on another team than they would with us because we have some other weapons."
In other notes from the Steelers' general manager:
* Colbert was asked about the rampant Internet rumors that the Steelers will release linebacker Lawrence Timmons because of his $15.1 million cap hit this year.
"Lawrence is a valuable contributor to our defense, to our team," Colbert said. "He’s one of the team leaders even though he’s not a real vocal guy. So, Lawrence is under contract and until that’s different, he certainly will be."
How did Colbert judge Timmons' performance last season?
"Lawrence is still a highly productive player. As the year went on I thought he played better down the stretch. He was a little uncertain with Ryan (Shazier) in and out of the lineup. I think once Ryan established himself as the other linebacker, I thought Lawrence's play improved. You put those two together, we think it's a pretty dynamic group."
* Conjecture that Bell might not be ready to return from his knee injury before the regular season was exaggerated a bit.
"He’ll be ready when he’s ready," is what Colbert said. "There’s no timetable coming from us that requires him to be ready for something. You can’t even say he’ll be ready for the regular season, because you won’t know that until he goes through the whole process. His health and his ability to return at 100% is the most important thing."
* Maurkice Pouncey, the center who missed the season with an ankle injury, should be ready for spring ball.
"He’s progressing very well," Colbert said. "He’s spending most of his time in Pittsburgh, because he’s able to do more things beyond just the rehab now. He’s been here the majority of this time and he’ll probably go back and forth between here and Florida to continue it. Right now, everything is all systems go."
* Colbert said the team would like to add a bigger cornerback but that size isn't a requirement.
"There are bigger receivers, so you want guys who can match up physically. But, we always try to evaluate a corner on if he can cover Antonio Brown. So, size isn’t necessary to cover Antonio Brown, superior athletic ability and skill is required. That’s the standard we try to hold: Can this guy cover Antonio?"