Deep draft class for tight ends could tempt Steelers
Since Heath Miller retired after the 2015 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have used the free agency and trade markets to replenish the tight end position.
Could the draft be the avenue of choice in 2019?
When Jesse James signed a four-year contract to play for the Detroit Lions, the Steelers lost a dependable backup and a bridge to the Miller era. Although his role expanded following Miller’s retirement, James never was viewed as a starter by management during the Ladarius Green experiment in 2016 and after Vance McDonald was acquired prior to the 2017 season.
With James gone, McDonald and Xavier Grimble are the only experienced tight ends on the roster. McDonald led Steelers tight ends with 50 receptions last year — 10 fewer than Miller caught in his final NFL season.
The Steelers haven’t drafted a tight end in the first round since Miller went No. 30 overall in 2005. They haven’t used a top-three pick on the position since selecting Matt Spaeth in the third round in 2007.
It wouldn’t be surprising if the Steelers drafted a tight end on the second day even though they need to upgrade at cornerback, linebacker and wide receiver. And if they are intent on adding a young tight end, this appears to be the class with which to do it.
“One of the better tight end drafts we’ve had in a while with premier top-end guys as well as a lot of depth all the way through,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “I can find you tight ends in every round in this draft. It’s a really, really good group.”
With the Steelers trading perennial 100-catch receiver Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, a tight end to complement McDonald could help make up the difference in production. It also would lessen the burden on second-year receiver James Washington and give offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner another option to throw at defenses.
“Tight ends are definitely a part of the game right now, that defensively, it makes it real difficult to try to game-plan against,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said at the NFL Combine. “The guys that can do multiple things are obviously more difficult or those players that have a certain skill set that you have to defense against one way or another can kind of put you in some binds.”
The most well-rounded tight end in the class is Iowa’s T.J. Hockenson, the Mackey Award winner in 2018.
NFL.com has Hockenson ranked as its No. 5 overall prospect. He could become the first tight end to be drafted in the top 10 since Eric Ebron went to the Lions in 2014 at No. 10.
“I love Hockenson. I think he’s the safest player in the draft,” said Jeremiah, who compared him to Rob Gronkowski. “I saw this kid with that same temperament and nastiness in the run game and controlling the run game, and then on top of that, he does nothing but get open and catch everything you throw to him.”
Noah Fant, who was Hockenson’s teammate at Iowa, also is viewed as a first-round pick as is Alabama’s Irv Smith Jr., who has been pegged to the New England Patriots in the wake of Gronkowski’s retirement.
“I think this is a good year for tight ends,” New York Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan said at the NFL Combine. “I don’t think there would be very many GMs out there that would probably say this wasn’t a particularly strong year for tight ends. There are some very good players.”
The Steelers hosted three tight ends among the first 28 players they brought in for official predraft visits. All three are considered second- or third-day prospects: LSU’s Foster Moreau, San Jose State’s Josh Oliver and Notre Dame’s Alize Mack.
“There’s different flavors at tight end,” Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said at the combine. “There’s some guys that are really good athletes that maybe need to improve their blocking, Or maybe they weren’t asked to block, so we’ve got to do some more research and maybe once they are taught, there will be a growth opportunity.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .