Nov 10, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Heath Miller (83) runs after a pass reception against the Buffalo Bills during the second quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Steelers Depot posted an article on Wednesday that got the wheels turning over here about Pittsburgh Steelers Heath Miller. The article was about statements from former Atlanta Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez that sympathize with current New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham’s battle to receive proper compensation.
Gonzalez argues against the positional pay scale the NFL has traditionally had in place for decades – where the QB earns the most money and the value goes down from there based on the position you play regardless (90% of the time) of your contribution/production vs. other teammates in other positions and their contributions.
Coming from Gonzalez, that’s a fairly weighted argument. Here’s a guy who’s receiving records outmatch and eclipse many wide receivers and their accomplishments. While he may have been the top paid TE in his heyday, he certainly was nowhere near the top paid receiver, even considering other teammates on both the Kansas City Chiefs and Falcons.
Nov 21, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham (80) celebrates a touchdown in the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Graham wants big bucks for his next contract. He’s deserved it. In 2013 he accounted for almost 20% of the teams total offense in yards. He was the top yard getter in receiving yards for TE’s and 15th overall in the league – beating out the likes of Anquan Boldin, Torry Smith, Keenan Allen, Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Wallace. He also accounted for a third (33%) of the Saints touchdowns. A third of their almost 50 TD’s. His 16 TD catches was tops in the league. Yet his current contract comes nowhere close to what some of those receivers he’s beating out are getting, and he won’t come close to beating them time around. Under this circumstance, Gonzalez is 100% correct. Graham, though making millions, will get the shaft in comparison to other offense pass catchers in the league.
Circling back to Miller, Miller was almost as huge a contributor in 2012 as Graham was in 2013. In 2012, one of the best seasons Miller put out until his ACL tear, Miller accounted for 15% of the team’s total offensive yards and almost a quarter of their 36 touchdowns. His eight TD grads landed him tied for 15th in the league and above guys like Wes Welker, Denarius Moore, Miles Austin, and teammate Antonio Brown. Miller had more yards than teammate Brown, yet Brown is the one sitting with the big contract.
To talk about Miller’s contract situation and not make mention of his ACL tear would be a disservice to the conversation. The Steelers extended Miller’s contract this offseason and lowered his overall pay in the process. Miller was coming off a slow season after his ACL tear, who’s to say that won’t continue. The new agreement saved the team millions in cap space, while lowering Millers base pay in 2014 and keeping his two year extension on the ‘low’ end. Yes, he is 31 (in October), and yes the production of TE’s (or any player for that matter) decreases as one gets older. Graham is 27 and has no signs of slowing down before he hits 30. The Steelers also are very good at paying players what they are really worth. But, is Miller victim of the pay scale based on position rather than the Steelers giving him his full net worth?
It’s not far removed from reality that one can argue Miller is still underpaid for what he brings to this offense. Graham may be a phenomenal pass catcher, but he’s not the first TE to have that skill set in his bag. Gonzalez did it. So did Miller. What separates Miller from Graham is that Miller can still play the more traditional role of TE when asked. He’s a fantastic blocking TE – in both the run and in pass protection. Rarely do you watch game footage and see Miller miss a block or allow a linebacker/defensive end come off a block and still make a play. How much is that worth compared to a Jimmy Graham who gets sloppy sometimes with his footwork while blocking a running play?
I’m not insinuating that Miller is at the same level of Graham. Graham is faster, gets downfield quickly, and has the agility to make safeties miss (where Miller usually bowls them over). His offense is more suited for that skill set, and Sean Payton utilizes those things in his offensive scheme. Miller is part of an offense that traditionally invests in the running game that is now slowly becoming a pass first, run second offense – though no true identity has been established under offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Even in those passing situations, Miller has been held at the line of scrimmage due to poor blocking on the part of the rest of the offensive line.
I think most folks can agree, however, that Miller certainly produces and is a play maker more frequently than a large contingency of wide receivers in the league. Receivers who make more money than he does – whether that is fair or not. It’s difficult to not conclude that Miller is underpaid for what he is really worth. Will Graham fall victim in some way as well? We’ll find out sometime this summer. He’s going to need more money to pay for all those slam dunking fines anyways.