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Steelers exploring all options to replace retired TE Miller

| Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, 6:09 p.m.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert responds to a question during a news conference at the NFL scouting combine on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Indianapolis.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert responds to a question during a news conference at the NFL scouting combine on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Indianapolis.
Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry catches a pass while being defended by Mississippi State's Kivon Coman on Nov. 21, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark.
Getty Images
Arkansas tight end Hunter Henry catches a pass while being defended by Mississippi State's Kivon Coman on Nov. 21, 2015, in Fayetteville, Ark.

INDIANAPOLIS — Whether it was Ken Whisenhunt, Bruce Arians or Todd Haley calling the shots for the Steelers offense, the tight end has been an important position.

That could change with Heath Miller out of the fold.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said Wednesday at the NFL Scouting Combine the Steelers have options to replace the recently retired Miller, with one of the more intriguing ones being a modification of what they have asked from their tight ends in the passing game for more than a decade.

Typically, the Steelers have used their tight end as a weapon. That might not be necessary anymore with the stockpile of talented skill players on the roster.

“Without a Heath Miller, you still have Antonio Brown, (and) you still have Le'Veon Bell, Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant,” Colbert said. “So that tight end, I don't know how big of a part (of the offense) they will be. It depends on their abilities and their ability to contribute within our group.

“They might contribute more on another team than they would with us because we have some other weapons available.”

The Steelers have time to figure out how they want to replace Miller and his contributions as a tight end who excelled in blocking and receiving, which is becoming a dying breed in the NFL.

They could go through free agency, which begins March 9. They could add a tight end in the NFL Draft at the end of the April, but top-tier options are limited beyond Arkansas' Hunter Henry. Or they could stay with the current combination of Matt Spaeth and Jesse James while monitoring the development of practice-squad tight end Xavier Grimble.

The Steelers knew Miller's time was winding down, which is one of the reasons they drafted James in the fifth round last year.

“Knowing that Heath was going into his 11th year and how much longer he can go, we felt Jesse was someone we could add and develop over time,” Colbert said, “so that maybe he can be ready when Heath steps away, not knowing exactly when Heath would step away.”

Miller informed coach Mike Tomlin and tight ends coach James Daniel he was contemplating retirement during their exit interviews. Last week, while Colbert and Tomlin were meeting to discuss free agency, Daniel knocked at the door.

“When Coach Tomlin saw him, he immediately said, ‘Heath's retiring, isn't he?' ” Colbert said. “JD said, ‘Yep, he told me last night.' ... Heath came in, was great and was on his way.

“It was something that wasn't a shock. We knew that it was a possibility, but until Friday morning, we didn't know it was a certainty.”

The Steelers will save $4 million against the cap, and considering free agent tight ends wouldn't be out of their price range, they could go shopping March 9. Colbert hasn't ruled out that possibility, but the number of tight ends on the market likely will change significantly in two weeks.

San Diego's Ladarius Green and Indianapolis' Dwayne Allen are considered the top of the free agent list but also are likely out of the Steelers' price range.

“It's not a bad group,” Colbert said. “It's much like the draft. Obviously, every team has a tight end in the NFL. If they have good ones, usually they don't get away. So we find out who signs in the next couple of weeks.

“And it might look good right now. Maybe there are five or six, and once free agency starts, there may be two or three.”

The problem with the draft is that the majority of the tight ends are pass-catchers. Colbert said they will add at least two players to the tight end room, but where they come from could vary significantly.

“We'll see if we find a vet or draft a tight end,” Colbert said. “I think both options are on the table right now.”

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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