By Jeremy Hritz
Since Heath Miller retired following the 2015 season, the Steelers have been incredibly thin at tight end, despite numerous attempts in free agency to land a quality player who could not only provide a receiving threat for Ben Roethlisberger, but also contribute effective blocking to the running game. This pursuit led them to the perpetually injured Ladarius Green, who flashed briefly before getting hurt again, and then Vance MacDonald, who offered more balance than Green, but too, struggled with injuries and inconsistency in production. You can add Eric Ebron to that list who was signed last season, and while he made his fair share of plays in the passing game in 2020, he also had an unfortunate number of drops and shortcomings in his blocking.
In between, the team made meager attempts in the draft by selecting Jesse James out of Penn State, who will forever remain associated with one of the most contentious calls in Steelers history. James, while not explosive, was adequate and consistent; however, once his contract expired, he was not re-signed, and he moved on to Detroit. He was recently cut and there was speculation he would return to the Steelers, but it appears that ship has now set off to sea following the 2021 draft. After James, there was Zach Gentry chosen out of Michigan, who was converted from QB to TE, and that conversion process is still in place.
The ultimate truth is that the Steelers have not prioritized TE until this years draft, and now it appears they have a steady, consistent, and reliable pass catcher on their roster. With that said, let’s take a look at this years set of tight ends for the Steelers.
Ebron the #1, But Freiermuth Is Coming
Despite his aforementioned dropsies, Ebron will start the season as the TE1, as he provides the most valuable skill set as a pass catcher on the roster. His ceiling as a blocker has been reached, and he does not provide much in the running game. Should his drops resurface, and should the second round pick out of Penn State, Pat Freiermuth emerge, Ebron could drop to #2 on the depth chart.
Speaking of Freiermuth, while not nearly as athletic as Ebron, he does possesses quality hands and the acumen to find the weaknesses in coverage, though he is not equipped with natural speed. Freiermuth is also still in development as a blocker, and if this part of his game comes around early, he can challenge Ebron. Both Ebron and Freiermuth are solid in the red area, so it will be interesting to see how Matt Canada packages both together in such situations and how they are used. This could provide a difficult wrinkle for opposing defenses to prepare for.
TE 3, 4 and Beyond?
Behind Freiermuth is Gentry, who was drafted in the 5th round of the 2019 draft, and is entering his 3rd season. Gentry was and still is a project, and the time is now for him to demonstrate he has made strides in becoming a serviceable NFL TE. At 6’8, 242 pounds, he has more than adequate size; however, that size has only translated into one reception, and his 2020 season was cut short by a knee injury. There was some hope after last camp that he would contribute in some way to the offense, but that never materialized, and he is a major question mark moving into training camp.
Rounding out the tight end squad are Kevin Rader, who saw some action due to injuries last season, and Dax Raymond, who was in camp before with the Steelers before finally getting cut. While Raymond is more than likely a camp body, Rader has some value as a result of the experience he earned last season, but more than likely he will be back on the practice squad.
The easy prediction is for Ebron to be the number 1, with Freiermuth and Gentry filling in the 2 and 3 spot; however, don’t count out the second round draft pick pushing himself into a starting role by the conclusion of the season. There is also the outside chance that Gentry does not develop, and the Steelers are dissatisfied with their TE3 and make a quiet signing following training camp.
2021 Steelers TE Depth Chart
- Eric Ebron
- Pat Freiermuth
- Zach Gentry
Practice Squad: Kevin Rader