The top tight ends realize the Pittsburgh Steelers are without Heath Miller

But with a limited number of draft picks, and many needs on defense, will the Steelers follow through and draft one? Here's the latest buzz:

INDIANAPOLIS -- Every team talks to every player at the Combine, right?

Well, there are degrees. Take this tight ends class.


Yeah, hilarious stuff, but seriously when South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams left the Combine podium Thursday he said the Pittsburgh Steelers had talked to him the previous night.

"I met for a few minutes with the tight ends coach," Adams said of assistant coach James Daniel.

When Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry left the podium Thursday, he said he was scheduled to meet formally with the Steelers that night.

With Mike Tomlin?

"I don't know. I'll find out when I walk through the door," Henry said.

Still, the difference between Adams and Henry is the difference between an informal and a formal meeting, and even then there's a difference in which coach shows up for the formal meeting.

Some players get both the informal and formal treatment. Like Austin Hooper.

The Stanford tight end told reporters that "I'll meet with the Steelers officially (Thursday night). I talked to them a little bit at the train station the other night. Great organization. Coach J.D. seems like a real knowledgeable guy, so hopefully I can pick his brain a little bit later."

The train station?

"There are a bunch of tables down there (at Lucas Oil Stadium) and you can just go up and talk to the coaches, so I met Coach J.D.," Hooper explained about his informal meet.

His formal meeting was held last night, so it appears that Hooper is the Steelers' primary target, if there is such a thing this draft season because the Steelers are more than likely just giving this position group attention out of due diligence.

The buzz from inside the organization is the team will pass on tight ends in the first four rounds. General Manager Kevin Colbert's comment on the first day in Indianapolis would appear to support that opinion.

"Without a Heath Miller," Colbert told a small group of local reporters, "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 he will be."

In other words, the Steelers have enough weapons on offense. And Colbert pointed out that Matt SpaethJesse James and Xavier Grimble give the team some quality and depth at the position as it stands.

Of course, due diligence at draft time is a Colbert staple, so let's do ours. The 2016 tight ends class breaks down this way:

* Hooper (6-4, 254) left Stanford after his redshirt sophomore year with 74 catches for 937 yards and eight touchdowns in two seasons as a starter. He finished strong with 15-144-2 in his final five games, and showed he can block, run deep and catch with those big, soft first-basemen-like mitts that measure 10 5/8 inches. And he's smart. Here's how he answered a question from a Pittsburgh reporter who asked Hooper if he knew that Miller had retired:

"Yes. Yes, sir. I noticed that," Hooper said, adding, "Rob Blanchflower's no longer part of the Steelers, I believe, too."

Hooper later said he knew about Blanchflower, the perennially injured practice-squad player, because "I just pay attention to what's going on around the NFL, all 32 teams," he said. "Without being in school you have a lot of down time, so I take that as kind of my homework. It's time to study what teams needs are."

Must be a Stanford thing.

Like playing tight end in the NFL.

Hooper is the latest in a line that includes Zach ErtzLevine Toilolo and Coby Fleener as high picks in the last four drafts.

“It starts with David Shaw, the way he recruits," Hooper said of the Stanford head coach. "His players are very intelligent and passionate about the game of football. Coach Shaw believed in me. Like I alluded to earlier, I might not have the prototypical height, but coach saw something in my tape that hopefully an NFL team will, too.

"The offense is tailored if you play tight end. You have to do a great job of blocking. You have to do a great job of running your routes and know the way our offense works."

* Henry (6-5, 250) at the moment is riding most media draft boards as a first-rounder. The junior from Arkansas caught 116 passes at 14.3 yards per catch in his three seasons.

More importantly perhaps is that he turned into an effective in-line blocker under Coach Bret Bielema in those three seasons. Bielema, of course, coached a physical Wisconsin offense the previous seven seasons.

"That really benefitted me a lot," Henry said. "Really, it’s just that run-first mentality and really putting my head in there in the run game. That’s something that he really preached and helped me to take on when I first got there."

While Hooper is the laid-back Californian, Hunter is the humble, Heath-like son of a Little Rock pastor who said from the Combine podium that he patterns his game after Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten.

"I'll say Heath, too," Henry said later. "I just grew up watching Jason Whitten. I'm right there by Dallas so it's pretty easy to admire him, but no doubt Heath was a great player as well."

* Adams (6-5, 247) might be the tight end with the best upside. He was disappointed with his 28-catch senior season at South Carolina, but drew everyone's attention with an outstanding week at the Senior Bowl.

"A lot of scouts said I had a great week down there," Adams said. "A lot of coaches said they didn’t think I was as tough as I was, that I could hold a block as long as I could. I felt like I had a great week down there."

* Nick Vannett (6-6, 257) and Tyler Higbee (6-6, 249) might have more realistic chances of landing with the Steelers as mid-round prospects, particularly Vannett because of his impressive blocking ability in space for Ohio State. Higbee is the more explosive offensive threat. He caught 38 passes for 563 yards and 8 touchdowns at Western Kentucky last season. Both players have long 33-inch arms and 10-inch hands.

(Don't forget to check out the daily stream of Steelers-related draft notes on the South Side message board.)


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