TE's plunge interests Steelers

After a weekend of watching the NFL Combine, Ryan Wilson had an epiphany on how the Steelers should approach the draft. Sure, offensive lineman, defensive end, linebacker and cornerback are team needs, but there is one position that is often overlooked ... until now.

Is it possible to love and loathe something at the same time? This is a rhetorical question; of course it is. And these are my feelings on the NFL Combine. I love it because it's football. Not actual football, but as close as you're going to get in late February. I loathe it for the same reason: it is the second slowest time in the NFL off-season (right after the entire month of June when, save the chance helmetless motorcycle accident, spying a Steelers player at Giant Eagle is newsworthy) and I am so hungry for anything football related, I'll settle for watching college kids run around in spandex.

More stupefying than being (willingly) duped into watching the Combine is how NFL general managers, coaches and scouts, at the end of the festivities, make these grand proclamations about newly reshuffled draft boards that, as best I can tell, are only reshuffled thanks to 40-yard-dash times and vertical leaps honed at pre-Combine camps that specialize in improving 40-yard-dash times and vertical leaps. Amazing. More amazing is that none of these drills correlate particularly well with NFL ability.

No doubt, some players lost a lot of money this weekend. And some will earn a few extra bucks thanks to amazing athletic feats performed in the sterile environs of the RCA Dome. My mini-polemic aside, I like the Combine. It is my first chance to get up to speed on the latest crop of potential draftees -- the whole weekend is one big College Football Cliff's Notes -- and it officially marks the start of my Mental Mock Drafts (MMD). Let me explain: until the Combine, my exposure to draft-eligible college players is through web sites and magazines. I don't watch a lot of college football, so I am always step slow in the draft discussions. But after a weekend of watching what is best described as Field Day for grown-ups, I can now spend my days Mental-Mock-Drafting which players will help the Pittsburgh Steelers win another Super Bowl. First up: my MMD Sleeper Pick.

Earlier this month I wrote that the Steelers should give serious consideration to finding a competent replacement for Jerame Tuman. I'm bringing this up because after watching Saturday's Combine coverage, which included tight ends engaging in various drills that are only tangentially related to football, I think I've found Pittsburgh's guy: Arizona State's Zach Miller.

(Steelers Nation collectively groans)

Wacky idea, right? Well, hear me out. Heading into the Combine Miller was regarded as the best available tight end. After snailing his way to a 4.84-forty and struggling through the gauntlet, NFLDraftScout.com's Rob Rang offered this:

Not only did [Miami tight end Greg] Olsen enjoy a spectacular workout at the Combine, Miller legitimately struggled. After running a disappointing 4.84 in the 40, Miller seemed to get down on himself and struggled in his route-running and receiving throughout the rest of his workout Saturday. Miller may have dropped out of the first round with his showing in Indy.
I hope Miller bombs his Pro Day and tanks every team visit too. And if he is available in the middle of the second round I think the Steelers should give serious thought to drafting him.

"But what about all the other team needs?" you ask.

Look, I'm not suggesting the Steelers take Miller with the 15th overall pick. And I know, I know, you would like to point out that Pittsburgh already has a do-it-all tight end who goes by the same name. Duly noted.

I also recognize the need for a stud offensive lineman/defensive lineman/linebacker/cornerback. But the draft is a quirky bird; any number of ridiculous scenarios could play themselves out on draft day. I just think Pittsburgh should keep an open mind about the whole thing with two months until the big weekend. Plus, have you looked at the depth chart behind Heath Miller recently? Despite what the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's John Harris writes, the Steelers most definitely aren't "strong" at tight end. They are a Health Miller injury away from having a glorified guard playing the position.

If you are still unconvinced, consider this: the Cowboys and Patriots use a lot of two-tight end sets and both were better-balanced offensive teams than the Steelers last season. (All three teams were in the top 10 in passing efficiency, but Dallas and New England finished 7th and 8th in rushing efficiency; Pittsburgh was 21st.)

Obviously, this success isn't solely because Parcells and Belichick threw an extra tight end in the formation, but it is a big part of it -- or at least bigger than the average football viewer might expect.

Thanks to this nifty article by Mike Tanier, we get an idea of how some NFL coaches employ multiple-tight end formations to create mismatches:

The recent return of the H-back and the two-tight end set can partially be credited to comebacks by the 3-4 defense and by [Joe] Gibbs. But it is also an adjustment to the personnel that is currently available. Colleges send the NFL plenty of quality tight end prospects every year, most of them top athletes who are able to run, block, and catch. Meanwhile, most college fullbacks are slow-footed lead blockers. Pro coaches need the versatility that the tight ends provide, and multi-tight end sets allow them to mass as many as four eligible receivers near the line of scrimmage. Those extra tight ends give coaches plenty of options in the passing game.
Bruce Arians stated the Steelers will show more four-wide receiver sets in 2007 with the intentions of opening of the running game. Fair enough, but an offense can be just as effective -- and diverse -- with multiple tight ends … and I'm not sure the two schemes are mutually exclusive. Again, quoting Tanier:
If a team passes frequently from a two-tight end set, they create opportunities for effective draw plays and delays from that personnel package. Coaches get the best of both worlds: a convincing formation to sell the pass action, but plenty of blockers to open holes for the running back.
Booyakasha! Now that's what I'm talkin' about. Pittsburgh has featured two-tight end sets in the past, but usually runs from that formation. Arians, when talking about streamlining the offense, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette that "You don't have to line up with two tight ends and two backs to run the football…" which could be taken any number of ways. It could mean that, like the Patriots and Colts, But Arians wants to run out of predominantly passing formations (though, as mentioned above, New England runs and passes out of multiple-tight end sets). Or, he could be hinting that just because you line up with two tight ends, it doesn't mean you have to run the ball. Since, in the context of the article Arians was discussing the running game, I'm pretty sure he was referring to the former, which weakens my argument. Therefore, I will assume the latter. Moving on…

Another benefit to adding a Zach Miller-type is that he mitigates the need for a capable fourth receiver. Previously, I advocated for Heath Miller seeing more time in the four-wide formations, but why not just feature two pass-catching tight ends? I'd happily take a player like Jason Witten (a third-rounder) over Cedrick Wilson. The trick, of course, is identifying the Jason Wittens in this draft class. My point, though, is unchanged: in the current offense, Pittsburgh undervalues the second tight end. Clearly, a lot can happen between now and the end of April. Free agency, Pro Days and individual workouts help identify needs heading into the draft. Barring a Daniel Graham signing (about as likely as Jason Gildon and Earl Holmes triumphantly returning to Pittsburgh), or Tuman getting bitten by a radioactive spider, tight end should be an "identified draft need."

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