COMMENTARY | Maybe no position on the NFL football field has seen more growth over the past half-decade then tight end. The size and speed of the league's best tight ends makes them matchup nightmares and teams like the New England Patriots have thrived off two tight end sets.
Now, more and more teams are drafting tight ends in an attempt to replicate the success of the Rob Gronkowski/Aaron Hernandez duo.
In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of their best seasons in terms of tight end usage. In Todd Haley's first year as offensive coordinator, eight-year veteran Heath Miller had by far his best season on the field, setting career highs in catches (71), yards (816), and touchdowns (8).
But a major knee injury forced Miller to leave the team's Week 16 matchup with the Bengals and puts his early-season availability in jeopardy.
Pittsburgh rounded out the year with 2012 rookie David Paulson, who showed flashes of receiving ability. To add stability if Miller misses any time in 2013, Pittsburgh added a familiar face in Matt Spaeth whom they drafted in the third round in 2007. David Johnson is also returning from injury, but has an uphill battle to make the roster.
One team that has replicated the two-tight end system with a lot of success has been the Baltimore Ravens. Both Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson have proven themselves to be reliable targets for quarterback Joe Flacco.
In the team's 2012 championship season, Pitta and Dickson combined for 82 receptions, 894 yards and seven scores with Dickson missing three games. The team also added athletic former Maryland tight end Matt Furstenberg as an undrafted free agent.
The Cincinnati Bengals are another team moving themselves toward a future with two tight ends. Coming into the 2013 draft, Cincy already had a former first round TE with tons of potential in Jermaine Gresham on the roster.
But that didn't stop them from spending the 21st pick in the draft on Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert.
Eifert was considered by many to be a steal in the first round and adds to an already big, athletic receiving corps with Gresham and A.J. Green leading the way. For a team on the rise with a good QB in Andy Dalton, these tight ends can do some damage.
Finally, the Cleveland Browns have made strides in trying to improve their tight end unit over the past few years. After a long stint with ole' reliable Ben Watson, the Browns have moved on to a younger, more athletic group.
That group is headlined by Jordan Cameron, one of the most athletically gifted ends in the game. Cleveland also signed the 6'7" Kellen Davis to give their quarterbacks a big target and a solid blocker. Norv Turner will have to work with these guys, but there's potential at the position.
2013 AFC North Tight End Rankings
Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens - Pitta had a breakout season in 2012 catching 61 balls for 669 yards and 7 TD's. He also happens to be one of Flacco's best friends. With Anquan Boldin out of the picture and Torrey Smith still an unproven commodity, Pitta is in line for a big year.
Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals - Gresham has been a Pro Bowler the last two seasons and has quietly been a Top 10 tight end. But with the Bengals arsenal becoming more and more crowded, expect a slight dip in production.
Heath Miller, Pittsburgh Steelers - When healthy, Miller is the best tight end in the division and one of the most complete in the league. But that knee injury is a serious concern to the Steelers and could force the 30 year old to miss some time. Starting the year on the PUP list isn't out of the question.
Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals - Had Jarvis Jones not been on the board for the Steelers at No. 17, we could have been talking about Eifert wearing black and gold. But Eifert has the talent to produce in any offense. With Green and Gresham likely to garner most of the coverage, Eifert could make his biggest impact early in his rookie season.
Ed Dickson, Baltimore Ravens - Pitta's emergence in 2012 cut Dickson's numbers nearly in half of what he was able to do the previous year. But Dickson can still be a threat for the Ravens. Baltimore has some issues at wide receiver right now and need Dickson to be at his best this season.
The AFC North is a division that's actually packed with talent at the tight end position. With that said, the Steelers could be in trouble if Miller isn't ready for the start of the season.
Pittsburgh would have to go with second year David Paulson and returning veteran Matt Spaeth, neither of which has caught more than 13 passes in a single season.
The fact remains that whenever Miller returns to the starting lineup, it's going to make Pittsburgh's offense better. But the Steelers should be on the lookout for another tight end and possible replacement for Miller.
Miller will turn 31 in October and it's hard to tell how this knee injury could affect his game. Todd Haley has used his tight ends will in this offense and the Steelers would benefit from having another talented guy behind Miller.
For the time being, however, it looks like the Steelers are content with Paulson and Spaeth filling in. Both guys will have to step up to fill some big shoes.
Dan Snyder has been covering the Steelers for over a year for outlets such as the Bleacher Report. Check out more of his work there or follow him on Twitter @dsnyder34. Also, stay tuned for more installments of " Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the AFC North".
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Pittsburgh Steelers
- Heath Miller
- Matt Spaeth
- David Paulson
- Baltimore Ravens
- Jermaine Gresham
- Ed Dickson
- Dennis Pitta
- Tyler Eifert