This is another in a series examining the Steelers' roster on a position-by-position basis as we count down the days to the opening of the team's 2015 training camp at Saint Vincent College.
In terms of this position on this particular Steelers team, the top priority should be to get to the start of the regular season with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth both healthy.
It was back on Dec. 23, 2012 – in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field – when Miller sustained a serious injury to his right knee. After spending all of the ensuing offseason rehabilitating from surgery, Miller opened training camp in 2013 on the physically unable to perform list. He improved enough to be inactive only for the first two games of the regular season before going on to finish with 58 catches for 593 yards and one touchdown.
The process of overcoming the kind of injury Miller had sustained often requires a full calendar year, and there were some who misinterpreted that with him being at the end of his career. Able to utilize the 2014 offseason to get himself ready for the rigors of an NFL season instead of being forced to rehabilitate a serious injury, Miller rebounded with a season in which he started all 16 games and finished with 66 catches for 761 yards and three touchdowns.
Check out photos of Steelers tight ends who are competing for a roster spot heading into the 2015 training camp.
As a player who will be 33 in October, Miller remains far and away the best tight end the Steelers have, and he still is a valuable dual-threat weapon at the position. He can expect to get the occasional day off during the rigors of training camp and the preseason, because the Steelers need him and it's not as though there's any question about his ability to get the job done if healthy.
Spaeth will be 32 in late November, and his recent injury history dates back to the 2013 training camp, his first with the Steelers following his return from two seasons with the Chicago Bears. During that summer, Spaeth injured a foot, and it required surgery. He opened that season on the injured reserve/designated to return list, and he didn't get onto the field until Dec. 8 against the Miami Dolphins. Then with an entire offseason to get his body ready for a season, Spaeth came back in 2014 to start 15 games and provide the offense with the in-line blocking it needs to make the running game a success.
That's the situation at the top of the depth chart here, with the third spot totally up for grabs.
The candidates include Rob Blanchflower, Jesse James, Michael Egnew, and Cameron Clear.
Blanchflower was the team's seventh-round draft choice in 2014, and 24 hours after being waived during the final roster cut-down he was signed to the practice squad where he spent the entire season. He then was signed to a futures contract on Jan. 5.
Egnew (6-foot-5, 252 pounds) entered the NFL in 2012 as a third-round pick of the Miami Dolphins after catching 140 passes for 1,285 yards and eight touchdowns in his final two college seasons for the Missouri Tigers. But in his first two NFL seasons, Egnew played sparingly and had only seven catches for 69 yards before being waived.
James was the team's fifth-round draft pick a few months ago, and Clear was among the group of undrafted rookies signed the next day.
In handicapping this competition, it's wise to consider the way the Steelers choose to utilize their tight ends, and how the team is as likely to decide upon a player based on his blocking ability as it is to choose one based on his receiving skills to add to what it already has in Miller and Spaeth.
"I think there are enough teams like us that still value tight ends like Heath and Matt Spaeth who can block and be an integral part of what you are doing," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "Like our free agent Cameron Clear – he has a big, good-looking body (6-5, 277), and he had only about six catches last year and wasn't really on the field. It's just what you value and what you think gives you the best chance to win. I think as long as we are all here, we will value a big tight end who can catch and block."
TOMORROW: Offensive line