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Miller’s Surprise Retirement Puts Steelers in Awkward Position

There are some things you just can’t plan for during the NFL offseason. Player arrests, freak injuries and surprise retirements are all par for the course during a time of year that typically carries as much drama as the regular season.

For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that now means dealing with the shock retirement of tight end Heath Miller, who decided to call it quits after an 11-year career that included two Super Bowl championships and a stack of franchise records for the position he played.

The move turned the heads of both analysts and fans alike. Miller’s speed and athleticism had certainly been on the decline over the past couple of seasons, but he remained a key part of Pittsburgh’s high-octane offense.

In the rare event that any combination of Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant or Markus Wheaton was covered, Ben Roethlisberger could rely on Miller making a safe catch over the middle. On 3rd and 8, he’d be good for 8 yards and 6 inches; returning nonchalantly to the next huddle as thousands of Steeler fans screamed his name in appreciation.

But with Miller gone, Pittsburgh’s depth chart at tight end reads Jesse James and Matt Spaeth. The former is a fifth-round pick with one season under his belt. James finished 2015 with 8 catches for 56 yards and a touchdown; or about an average Sunday for a starting-caliber TE in the modern NFL. Not exactly enough production there to simply hand him the starter’s job.

The latter is a veteran primarily used as a blocker in the run game. In 2014, he and guard David DeCastro were the architects of many a trap and pull to spring Le’Veon Bell into an open lane. With Bell going down early in 2015, Spaeth’s role was diminished per a less inventive rushing playbook. He ended the year with 2 receptions for 10 yards.

In an ideal world, Miller would’ve held on for one more season, allowing the Steelers to blood James further into the offense and likely roll with him as the starter for 2017. Now, a training camp battle could emerge between James and a wildcard pick up in either free agency or the first round of the draft, with Arkansas’ Hunter Henry being a trendy candidate.

At any rate, the Steelers have enough firepower on offense to not be completely dictated by the need to find a suitable replacement at TE. It may, however, impact how the usually dormant front office approaches free agency, especially with a little extra cash to play with.

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