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Steelers Tight End Overview: Pat Freiermuth's New Partner

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new tight end, and two veterans competing for the final spot.

The Pittsburgh Steelers' 90-man roster is set, and with it come plenty of position battles. On the offensive side of the ball, one of the more loaded competitions this summer will be the tight end room, which has two candidates for the final 53-man roster spot. 

Let's get into it. 

Starter: Pat Freiermuth

The second-year tight end from Penn State has been rock solid since day one and has transformed himself into one of the more reliable assets in the league at his position. In 2022, he finished 5th in yards per route run among all tight ends with at least 50 targets, according to Sports Info Solutions. His yards per catch average rose from 8.2 to 11.6 in his sophomore campaign thanks to more opportunities down the field.

The Chase Claypool trade was a blessing in disguise for Freiermuth, who essentially operated as the Steelers' de-facto slot receiver in his absence, thriving in the role down the stretch. Freiermuth has enough juice to threaten the seams, reliable hands to act as a security blanket underneath, and is a smart player who shows up when reading multiple defenders in zone coverage. He's a terror to cover on option routes out of the slot. 

It's safe to say that Freiermuth has been doctor ordered as a receiver. Tight end isn't typically a position where young players thrive right off of the bat, but that's been the case so far through two seasons. Arguably the biggest thing stopping him from joining the league's elite is his struggles in the run-blocking department, which are still a work in progress. The effort is there, and that's half the battle, but he's still learning how to be a factor in the trenches. 

Even if that area of his game doesn't improve significantly, he's already one of the premier pass catchers for the position, and there's certainly good value in that. It's worth noting that he has already accrued three concussions, with is worth monitoring but so long as he stays healthy, he's in line for a nice contract extension next summer. Freiermuth figures to be one of the go-to targets once again in 2023. 

Primary Backup: Darnell Washington

Pittsburgh was insanely lucky that medical issues caused Washington to fall all the way to the end of the third round on draft weekend. Not only because Washington is very talented but because he's the perfect compliment to what the Steelers already have in Pat Freiermuth. At 6-6, 265 pounds, Washington is a physical freak with the ability to overwhelm defenders with his physicality. He's a legit asset in the ground game, and the scary part is that he's got room to grow in terms of refining his hand placement and overall technique, signaling a sky-high ceiling in this area.

Washington isn't just a blocking tight end and is capable of providing some spark as a receiver as well, despite not getting the chance to do a ton through the air in college. The Georgia product is someone that you want to get the ball to in the flats, as he can be a nightmare to bring down after the catch. He's also shown the ability to run the seam and stretch the field, using his size and straight-line speed to his advantage.

His hands and contested catch ability are a little bit of a question mark, but there's reason to be optimistic for improvement there. He's pretty tight-hipped because of his build, which will ultimately limit his ceiling as a receiver. But his run-blocking prowess gives him a friendly floor with plenty of potential to grow throughout his rookie contract. Two tight end sets are going to become more and more prevalent this season thanks to Washington's arrival.

Fighting For a Spot: Connor Heyward, Zach Gentry

Connor Heyward had a strong summer and never looked back, even working himself into an auxiliary role on offense. Undersized in a traditional sense, Heyward is more of a move chess piece on offense, which ultimately could help his cause to maintain a roster spot in year two. With Derek Watt out of the mix, Heyward could be the pseudo-fullback in this offense and fill in for Freiermuth in the slot if an injury occurs. 

Earlier in the offseason, Zach Gentry was given a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh. Gentry saw a good amount of time on offense last season in two tight end sets, but those snaps are likely headed Washington's way, which makes his projection for the 53-man roster a bit murky. Having said that, he has experience within the offense and isn't going to concede his snaps without a fight. 

It's possible that Pittsburgh elects to keep all four tight ends on the roster come opening day, sacrificing a traditional fullback spot in order to do so. In the event that they decide to only keep three at the position, it will likely come down to which player offers more value on special teams. In that case, Heyward has a pretty significant advantage, as he is one of the more well-versed returning assets on the roster at the moment.

Practice Squad Candidate: Rodney Williams

It's a tough road for undrafted free agents in general, but when you're staring down the barrel of a pretty loaded position group, it makes life even tougher. Williams had a cup of coffee with the Denver Broncos last season but has yet to appear in an actual NFL regular season game. He was featured more so as a receiver in college while at Tennessee-Martin, catching seven touchdowns over his final two seasons. He's a pretty solid athlete for the position, but even with a strong training camp/preseason, he's almost assuredly auditioning for other teams or a practice squad spot.

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