The tight end position has grown in importance in recent seasons thanks to an infusion of athletic pass receivers such as Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, Baltimore's Todd Heap and San Diego's Antonio Gates.
Keeping with that trend, Virginia's Heath Miller was selected with the 30th pick of the first round yesterday by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have not had a consistent pass catching threat at tight end in recent seasons.
_____ NFL Draft _____ • The 49ers make Utah quarterback Alex Smith, pictured, the first overall selection.
• The Chargers end the wait of the Terps' Shawne Merriman, selecting the linebacker with the 12th overall pick.
• The Rams grab Howard cornerback Ronald Bartell in the second round.
• The Steelers snap up Virginia's top-ranked tight end, Heath Miller.
• Ravens hold their breath, then take wideout Mark Clayton.
• The Bronocs pull a late third-round surprise by taking Maurice Clarett.
_____ Live Online _____ • The Post's Mark Maske will analyze the NFL draft at noon EDT Monday.
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_____ By the Numbers _____ • 2: Players named Alex Smith selected. The 49ers took the quarterback No. 1 overall, and the Buccaneers took the tight end in the third round.
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• 5: Players picked in the first round who weigh less than 200 pounds.
• 5:47: Duration of the first round in hours and minutes, beating the previous record for longest first round by seven minutes.
• 7: Quarterbacks selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the past eight drafts.
• 10: Underclassmen selected in the first round.
_____ On Our Site _____ • Picks, by round
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Like Maryland defensive end-linebacker Shawne Merriman, who was picked by a San Diego team that runs a 3-4 defense suited to his versatility, Miller appears to be in a good situation. Pittsburgh has a solid offensive line, a budding star at quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger and an elite wide receiver in Hines Ward.
The Steelers haven't had a tight end catch 20 passes in a season since 1995, and a tight end hasn't led Pittsburgh in receiving since 1993, when Eric Green caught 63 passes.
Getting the tight end more involved in the offense is something the Steelers will have to do since Plaxico Burress departed via free agency.
The 6-foot-5, 254-pound Miller was a highly productive player at Virginia, catching 111 passes for 1,376 yards and 11 touchdowns during his junior and senior seasons, but he was hampered by a hernia that limited his ability to work out leading up to the draft.
The injury combined with a lack of teams looking for tight ends allowed Miller to slip to the Steelers, who were delighted to take him.
"He's the guy who kinda fits what we like to do," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher told reporters. "I think he fits our system well."
A pair of local cornerbacks, Howard's Ronald Bartell and Virginia Tech's Eric Green, were snapped up on a day when cornerback was among the most drafted positions. Bartell went in the second round to St. Louis, and Green was selected in the third round by Arizona. Virginia linebacker Darryl Blackstock went to the Cardinals in the third round at 95th overall.
Several other local players, including Maryland's Chris Kelley and C.J. Brooks, Virginia's Elton Brown and Chris Canty and Virginia Tech's Jim Davis, Jon Dunn and Vincent Fuller could be drafted today in rounds four through seven.