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Ranking the AFC North: Tight Ends

The AFC North was once a division loaded with big-time accomplished tight ends. The division still features a lot of big and physically gifted tight ends, but experienced tight ends in the North are now a thing of the past. What will be seen in 2015 is a bunch of young budding tight ends looking to become the next household name.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In years past, the AFC North has been loaded with talented and decorated tight ends. In fact, just two short years ago, every team in the AFC North team featured a Pro Bowl (or Pro Bowl caliber) tight end on their roster – Miller (2x), Gresham (2x), Cameron (1x) and Pitta. Fast forward to 2015 and all but Miller are essentially gone (Pitta is trying to recover from a career-threatening rash of hip injuries). What’s left is the grizzled vet – Heath Miller – and many young and talented, yet unproven tight ends.

1) Steelers Predicted TE Depth Chart: Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, Jesse James (R)

Since being drafted in the first round of the 2005 draft, Heath Miller has arguably been the most complete tight end in the NFL. Miller may be the best blocking tight end in the league and his receiving skills are grossly under appreciated by football fans outside of Pittsburgh. To give you an idea of how much more experienced and accomplished the Steelers are at tight end compared to any other team in the division, consider this: Miller has 532 receptions, 6,034 yards, 43 touchdowns and 2 Pro Bowl appearances in his career… the nine tight ends on the Bengals, Ravens and Browns combined, have just 251 receptions, 2,883 yards, 10 touchdowns and 0 Pro Bowls. While Miller – a 10-year veteran who will turn 33 a month into the 2015 season - may be toward the backend of his career and the Steelers have little else behind him. Until we see something from one of the other young tight ends in the division, Miller is the best TE of this division and it isn’t even close.

2) Bengals

Predicted TE Depth Chart: Tyler Eifert, Tyler Kroft (R), C.J. Uzomah (R)

The Bengals feature a trio of big, young and athletically gifted tight ends who are high on potential and low on experience. Eifert may be the most talented tight end in the division, but, he missed all but a quarter of football in 2014 and has to prove he can stay healthy at the NFL level. Eiftert is not a natural blocker, but he is a natural receiver and at 6’6", 250 pounds, he is a matchup nightmare for any linebacker or safety. Eifert was projected as a huge part of Hue Jackson’s offense in 2014 and in the Bengals’ first two drives in Week 1 in Baltimore, Eifert had three receptions (two for first downs) and 37 yards. With Eifert claiming to be 100 percent healthy for the first time since before 2014 OTAs, look for him to have a breakout year in 2015. Along with Eifert, the Bengals took Tyler Kroft out of Rutgers in the third round (85th overall) in this year’s draft and he should see plenty of playing time in the wake of Jermaine Gresham’s departure. Kroft is another big body (6’5" and 246 pounds) and like Miller, is a complete tight end. The Bengals, as a result of his blocking ability, had Kroft rated as their top tight end in the 2015 draft and like Miller, Kroft is an underrated and underappreciated pass catcher. To round out the Bengals tight ends is another talented rookie, C.J. Uzomah. Uzomah is one of those big (6’5", 264 pound) athletic freaks like Jimmy Graham. A fifth round pick (157th overall) out of Auburn, Uzomah never had a tight ends coach in college and has a lot to work on from a blocking standpoint, but his size, speed and hands could make him a star in this league and will present a difficult matchup in the red zone.

3) Browns

Predicted TE Depth Chart: Gary Barnidge, Rob Housler, Jim Dray

In 2013, Jordan Cameron emerged as a Pro Bowl tight end for the Browns, but due to injuries and a lack of desire to stay in Cleveland, the Browns let him walk in the offseason. In his place, the Browns have eight year veteran Gary Barnidge and five year veteran Rob Housler. Housler, a third round pick (69th overall) out of Florida Atlantic in 2011, is a physically gifted receiver with great size (6’5", 250 pounds) and good speed, but due to injuries (and scheme), has never lived up to his potential. Housler has never played a full 16-game season since joining the NFL in 2011. He has just 105 receptions in four seasons and has never amassed more than 454 yards receiving. In 2014, Housler had just 9 receptions on 17 targets and part of his issue is he is not a good run blocker – something that could affect his playing time in the run heavy AFC North. Barnidge, on the other hand, has never caught more than 13 passes in an NFL season, but as a result of his blocking ability, may see more snaps than Housler with the Browns this year. The same could be said for sixth year man Jim Dray who had just 17 receptions in 2014 and has never had more than 26 receptions in a season. Either way, when it is all said and done, the Browns three tight ends played in 44 NFL games in 2014 and accounted for a total of just 39 receptions.

4) Ravens

Predicted TE Depth Chart: Maxx Williams (R), Crockett Gillmore 10 121 1, Nick Boyle (R), *Dennis Pitta (PUP)

In 2012 Dennis Pitta broke out and became a favorite target and trusted safety net for Joe Flacco. Unfortunately since 2012, Pitta has suffered two severe hip injuries which have the 30-year-olds’ career in jeopardy. As a result, the Ravens took Maxx Williams – the top tight end on many boards - in the second round (55th overall) of the 2015 draft. Williams came out as a redshirt sophomore and is a big (6’4", 249 pound) tight end with good speed and good hands, but blocking and route running at this point in his career are a concern and could be an issue in the AFC North. Gillmore, the only Ravens tight end with NFL experience, will likely be the Ravens starting tight end due to his blocking ability. Gillmore was a big part of the Ravens’ improved run game in 2014 and the second year player should see more catches this year. While the Ravens have the least experienced group of tight ends, they have good potential.

Insight from the AFC North SB Nation Writers:

Chris Pokorny (@DawgsByNature), Dawgs By Nature
There are no big-name tight ends with Jordan Cameron's departure. This is the only position the team basically ignored this offseason.
Matthew Stevens (@MatthewS_balt), Baltimore Beatdown (@BMoreBeatdown)
Much like the Ravens' wide receiver corps, we know so little about the tight ends that grading them is near impossible. With Dennis Pitta looking like he'll never play football again, I have to count him out for the Ravens. That leaves Crockett Gillmore as the only tight end that has played in an NFL game before. While Gillmore is good, and could prove to be a big help this season, few people would call him the future of even the Ravens' tight ends.
Jeff Hartman (@BnGBlitz), Behind the Steel Curtain (@btsteelcurtain)
Outside of Heath Miller the Steelers don't have much in terms of tight end. They drafted Jesse James out of Penn State, but the Steelers certainly are looking to add to this position in the future as Miller's days in the NFL seem to be numbered.