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Fan favorite Heath Miller's retirement forces Steelers into brave new world

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Clark on Heath Miller: One of greatest Steelers ever (1:33)

Ryan Clark and Herm Edwards reflect on the career of Heath Miller who announced his retirement from the NFL. (1:33)

So maybe Heath Miller had lost a step -- barely.

But Miller's importance to the Steelers can't be overstated, based on everything he offered the franchise for 11 years.

Pass catching.

Run blocking.

Toughness.

Locker-room leadership.

Smarts.

Every intangible in the football manual, he embodied it. No player seemed to capture the blue-collar vibe of Pittsburgh football more than Miller.

His retirement at age 33, which the Steelers announced Friday afternoon, forces the team to reimagine new offensive possibilities while trying to replace a workhorse.

For years, Ben Roethlisberger's safety valve over the middle of the field was Miller. That's gone now.

Miller was still productive. His athleticism waned a bit in his final years, but he could still get open. Five yards, turn left or right, catch. His hands remained elite.

There's no surefire option to replace that dependability at this point. After all, this wasn't a player holding out too long. He moved on with something left.

Miller will be missed beyond the catches and yards: Steelers fans love Miller, chanting "Heeeeeeeath" every time he corralled a pass over the middle. With several franchise records for tight ends, including receptions (592), yards (6,569) and touchdowns (45), Miller has the stats to accompany the tenure and the Super Bowl pedigree. That might be enough to get him into the Steelers ring of honor one day. Coaches absolutely loved this guy. Todd Haley and others have routinely called him one of the best teammates they've ever seen. He wasn't overly vocal but would pull players aside when the time was right. That's the stuff you can't manufacture.

The Steelers have work to do on offense without Miller: The Steelers like fifth-rounder Jesse James, but he's hardly a guarantee to replace Miller. The Steelers will develop him, see how he grows, but a depth chart of James and Matt Spaeth won't get it done. The Steelers can design more plays for slot receiver Markus Wheaton over the middle to compensate for Miller's loss. But Wheaton's not an inline tight-end blocker. That might be the hardest part of Miller's game to replace, the versatility from snap to snap.

This could change the Steelers' draft plans: Tight end was never a position of need. The Steelers always could take that off the board in the past. That changes now. ArkansasHunter Henry is considered the draft's top tight end, and he could be available at No. 25 overall. If the Steelers love his skill set, they have to consider him. They would have done so anyway, considering Miller's age, though any draft pick could have integrated with Miller to form a potent duo. With the Steelers' fast-paced, quick passing game, this is a chance for the team to add speed and dynamic playmaking on the inside. Not that Miller wasn't dynamic -- he certainly was for parts of his career -- but speed was never his thing.

From a business sense, Miller's retirement helps, but that's not the point: For you cap-space lovers, Miller's retirement takes about $4 million off the books. ESPN's roster management system has the Steelers at around $14 million in cap space once the new salary cap hits. They'll have enough space to maneuver. Though I never got the sense the team was going to cut Miller. He's still valuable on and off the field. A pay cut, maybe. A recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report said Troy Polamalu was given a retire-or-get-cut ultimatum, so who knows, maybe Miller got that. But Miller had more left than Polamalu did at his retirement point, in my opinion. Fretting over a few million in exchange for uncertainty at the tight end position wouldn't make sense. That's why the Steelers must like their contingency plan, whatever it is.