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Connor Heyward's Versatility Key to Sticking with Steelers

2023 could be a big year for Connor Heyward's role in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense.

PITTSBURGH -- This time last year, Connor Heyward's name was already buzzing through Pittsburgh Steelers OTAs well before making a name for himself during training camp, ultimately leading to him cracking the opening day roster.

His story didn't stop there. The rookie tight end was on the field for 174 snaps on offense, carving out a smaller role as a receiving option within the Steelers' passing attack. Perhaps more importantly, he contributed another 284 snaps on special teams. 

With the Steelers drafting Darnell Washington and re-signing Zach Gentry in the offseason, the tight room is more competitive now than it was a year ago. But Heyward's versatility is his calling card, one that he'll definitely be aiming to use as a way to ensure that he's on the roster again in 2023. His ability to be flexible in his alignment didn't just start as a rookie, as he was moved all over the place while at Michigan State as well. 

If you look at his snap count breakdown on Pro Football Focus, Heyward took 400 snaps at running back as a freshman way back in 2018 before getting banged up the following year, with him spending most of the season sidelined with an injury. In 2020, he returned to the backfield and was part of a running back committee, but that part of his journey was coming to an end. His final season in college gave him the ability to showcase his ability as a chess piece, lining up at fullback, tight end, and in the slot as a split-out receiver. That experience with different responsibilities is likely one of the things that drew the Steelers to him during the draft process.

2023 will potentially offer Heyward an opportunity to branch out and do even more this upcoming season. Derek Watt, who occupied the fullback role last season albeit in limited snaps, was not brought back after his contract expired. It's not quite clear who will slide into this spot this season, but Heyward would make some sense in this regard, especially if Pittsburgh doesn't want to waste a roster spot on a traditional fullback with limited versatility, who is only going to register a handful of snaps each week on offense.

Whether it's at fullback or tight end, putting Heyward on the field could potentially cause some mismatch problems for the defense. By placing 2-3 tight ends on the field, defenses will brace for the run and opt for heavier personnel, allowing the offense the ability to throw with more linebackers on the field instead of defensive backs. This is a strategy that the Kansas City Chiefs utilized a ton last season and had a ton of success through the air all the way to another Super Bowl victory.

From a roster-building perspective, Pittsburgh traditionally carries three tight ends throughout the season. Pat Freiermuth and Darnell Washington are both roster locks, and that final spot could come down to a battle between Gentry and Heyward. From a build composition standpoint and skill set comparison, these two players couldn't be more different from one another.

Gentry, at over 6-8 and 265 pounds, is one of the largest tight ends that you'll ever see in today's game. He has primarily been used as an attached blocker in the run game and occasional check-down option underneath. While no one should confuse him as one of the better run blockers for his position, Gentry's massive size and frame are at least enough to make him passable in most matchups. 

On the other hand, Heyward is one of the smallest tight ends in NFL history, standing at 5-11 and weighing in around 235 pounds. While they were technically both listed as tight ends, they are utilized very differently. Heyward is tasked mostly with operating more as a wing or puller across the formation on split zone concepts. His mobility helps in this regard, but it's more or less to reduce the amount of time that he's asked to block defensive ends that are always significantly larger.

Despite his limitations as a blocker, Heyward's hands were really impressive last summer, flashing the ability to snag fastballs away from his frame with ease. He's been very vocal about his confidence against defensive backs when working out of the slot as a receiver. Being smaller has its perks. He's much more of a graceful and nimble mover, which helps in the route-running department. Of all the tight ends on the roster, he's the guy that resembles Freiermuth's receiving archetype the most, which would obviously make him a candidate for more work should an injury occur during the year.

When discussing players at the bottom of the depth chart, special teams is often the deciding factor. Heyward is a four-phase team guy who covers both kicks and punts and is also on both return teams. He was one of the most productive Steelers players last season, registering seven tackles on special teams, fourth most on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.

The three players with more tackles on special teams last season? Marcus Allen, Arthur Maulet and Miles Boykin. Allen is currently unsigned at the moment. Maulet and the Steelers had a falling out, which led to him being released a while back, and Boykin Is far from a lock to make the roster. As previously mentioned, Watt is no longer in the fold, and his primary contributions throughout his tenure in Pittsburgh were in this phase, leaving a void for Danny Smith's troops. 

It's possible that Heyward could be the glue guy that holds this unit together. The saying "the more you can do" rings true in the NFL, and Heyward could be the latest example of that mantra. 

He's definitely a player to watch this summer once training camp rolls around as the Steelers figure out exactly what to do with him moving forward. While that remains unclear at the moment, one thing is for sure - his versatility will make him a tough player to keep off the roster.

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