NFL: Paulson filling in at tight end for Steelers
LATROBE — David Paulson stood on practice field No. 1 on Sunday afternoon, the second-year Pittsburgh Steelers tight end standing next to All-Pro teammate Heath Miller while the two watched one of Miller’s two sons do his own imitation of a 40-yard dash.
Slouched over a bit, flushed cheeks making the 24-year-old Paulson look a decade younger, Paulson looked a bit like Miller’s little brother. And in a way, he is.
While Miller remains on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from a gruesome left knee injury he suffered last season, the timeline on Paulson’s apprenticeship is speeding up.
In the span of a year, the soft-spoken kid taken as a seventh-round flier in the 2012 draft is possibly the team’s best pass catching option until Miller returns.
Even after catching a handful of passes from Ben Roethlisberger — including a diving grab in front of LaMarr Woodley — during a seven-on-seven drill on the second day of training camp, Paulson shrugged his shoulders and looked at the ground when asked to discuss his rise up the depth chart in 12 short months.
“I’m a little more comfortable and I know what to expect out of training camp,” said Paulson, who caught seven passes in limited playing time in 2012. “I know the offense. I’m more comfortable with the people here.”
It certainly looks like it.
Then again, Paulson’s always been able to get his hands on the football. He caught 67 passes for 1,041 and 10 touchdowns in his final two years at Oregon.
Lining up in the slot, Paulson used his 6-foot-4 body to create matchup problems with opposing linebackers and safeties in the Ducks’ up-tempo attack.
The Steelers saw enough on film to grab Paulson with the 240th pick in the draft even though Miller is in the midst of a stellar career and veterans David Johnson and Leonard Pope were on the roster.
Tight ends coach James Daniels’ recommendation to general manager Kevin Colbert when Daniels saw Paulson’s name still on the board was simple.
“I thought he was a really good football player,” Daniels said. “I thought he was better than a seventh-round pick for sure.”
Rounding out the edges, however, will take some time. Paulson spent his entire college career off the line of scrimmage. He was adequate as a blocker, but it wasn’t exactly the most important part of his job.
If Paulson wants to become an every-down player in the NFL, it will have to be. At 246 pounds, Paulson allows he’s a hardly a “monster.”
While he’s tried to put “good weight” on, it hasn’t been easy. And while Daniels believes Paulson has taken a step forward when it comes to moving defenders around in close quarters, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Just in case Paulson needed a reminder, rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones provided one during the first practice in pads on Monday.
Left all alone to contend with Jones, Paulson was pushed around with ease by the player the Steelers hope will one day fill the void of menace left by the cutting of former All-Pro James Harrison.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gave Paulson an earful, though if it affected Paulson in any way it didn’t show. It rarely does.
During his first training camp last summer, Paulson took a pounding but kept getting back to his feet. It’s that resilience that allays any concerns Daniels has about Paulson’s ability to improve.
“He won some battles for us at the line of scrimmage last year and he didn’t win some,” Daniels said. “Hopefully the wins outnumber the losses. I don’t think there’s any question that if we call on him for it, he’ll win more times than he gets beat.”
The key for the Steelers will be to pick the battles it sends Paulson into. Veteran Matt Spaeth was brought back in free agency to serve as the masher. Yet Paulson needs to be effective enough as a blocker so that he doesn’t tip off defenses.
“We don’t want the defense to be able to say, ‘This guy’s in they’re throwing it. This guy’s in, they’re running it,’” Daniels said. “That’s what we’ve challenged him with and that’s what he’s striving to be.”
For all his boyish looks, Paulson is an ardent student of the game, drawing praise from Miller and Spaeth for his maturity.
“He’s not really a guy you have to take under your wing and show him the ropes,” Spaeth said. “He’s just professional in how he does everything.”
NOTES: The Steelers practiced for the first time in pads on Monday, a workout highlighted by the “backs on backers” drill where a running back attempts to block a blitzing linebacker. Jones clashed with second-rounder RB Le’Veon Bell four times. Bell got the better of Jones on three occasions and also held his own against starters Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. “It was tense,” Bell said. “It was something new and something I have to get used to. A lot different in college, but I think I had a pretty good day.” … Cornerbacks Cortez Allen (knee) and DeMarcus Van Dyke (hamstring) were held out for the second straight practice and their injuries are characterized day to day. ... The Steelers will not practice today. Workouts resume Wednesday afternoon at St. Vincent College and are open to the public.