Steelers at crossroads with Heath Miller injury
Fans can argue about why the Steelers had a poor season in 2012. All will agree that the Steelers seemingly revolving door to the nearest hospital emergency room did not particularly help matters. Ironically, the worst injury, in 2012, had the least impact on the 2012 season. Week 16 saw starting tight end, Heath Miller, sustain a devastating knee injury. His injury will definitely have a significant impact on the 2013 season. The Steelers must decide how they will proceed very carefully.
A knee injury is always problematic and will impact a player’s career. Just ask former Steelers Walter Ambercrombie or Rod Woodson. Both players saw their career rapidly go downhill after their knee injuries. Unfortunately, Miller he did not just injure one ligament. He tore not only his ACL but his MCL and PCL. His knee is nothing short of a train wreck. Typically a torn ACL takes approximately nine months to fully recover. Three ligaments you have between nine to twelve months of recovery time. The injury could keep Miller out until at least December of 2013. If Miller is ready by the start of the 2013 season it would be a remarkable feat, comparable only to Rod Woodson’s same season comeback. To make matters worse he played an invaluable role in the Steelers offense in 2012 and was the 2nd leading receiver. The big question is at 30 years old how long does it take Miller to recover? He most certainly will take longer to heal, than let’s say Robert Griffin III who suffered a similar injury with the Redskins. Yet once he does recover will his playing ability be diminished? The Steelers also must answer a second more problematic question. How does his injury affect their free agent signings and the April draft? This gives the Steelers only two viable options, neither very palatable.
The first option Pittsburgh has is to keep Miller. The problem is how he will perform once he returns. Granted he is not a running back, wide receiver, or defensive back. Healthy knees are crucial for the speed needed at those positions. As a tight end Miller’s knee can be a mess, without affecting his ability to block defensive personnel. However his role as a receiver could be hampered, the question is how much? This is a big unknown if the Steelers keep Miller. Also if they keep Miller it is doubtful he will be healed by the start of the season. October is a possibility, although November or December is more likely. So the chances are good he could miss at minimum of at least four to eight games before his return. So if they keep Miller, they need to continue paying his salary as well as decide who takes his place until he returns. They could keep Pope, however he is a free agent going into the offseason and more than likely to resign him Pittsburgh would have to pay considerably more than his previous contract. It would not be unthinkable he would ask for upwards of a $800,000 to $1,000,000 or more season. He has shown reliability on the field, but then again he is no Heath Miller. They could opt to not resign Pope and go with David Paulson. He is only slated to make $480,000 in 2013. Of course do they really want to give a starting job to last year’s 7th round draft pick? It is not really conceivable they would go with Paulson without taking another tight end in the draft, or finding an available free agent. However if they choose free agency the cheaper option may be to keep Pope. Given Pittsburgh’s other need’s, burning a draft pick for a temporary replacement to Heath Miller is not preferred choice either, but one they may have to do. Given the Steelers have been projected to be anywhere from 8 to 28 million over the salary cap in 2013, these are choices which will complicate their efforts to reach the 121 million limit, while addressing their unrestricted free agent and restricted free agent situations. Not to mention the possibility of having to re-negotiate Ben Roethlisberger’s contract.
This then leads to option two. Release Heath Miller now. Surely, not something the Steelers would like to do, however it might make more sense. Given future performance is an issue; they could release him now and bring in a replacement for the 2013 season and not have to worry about resigning Pope. Releasing Miller could free up some salary cap room to do this while allowing them to work on re-signing some of their restricted free agents such as Emmanuel Sanders or Issac Redman. The upside for Heath Miller is that it gives him time to fully recover, and he would have no problems signing with another team which could use him. Of course opting to draft a replacement for Miller will affect their efforts to use the draft to fill other future needs such as Linebacker, more offensive linemen, and possibly to groom heirs for Ben Roethlisberger or Troy Palamalu.
Certainly these are not easy choices, of course none of the ones the Steelers make in this offseason will be. However, the Rooney’s have always found a way to cope with these dilemmas. Granted not every choice they have made has worked perfectly, but generally they work to the team’s advantage. Their choice over how they cope with Miller’s injury is anyone’s guess at the moment, but rest assured whatever the Rooney’s do it will be in the best interest of the team.
Mike Kotts is an NFL writer for TPF and can be contacted at MKotts@ThePenaltyFlagBlog.com.