By Jeremy Hritz
“The Steelers are going to throw more to the tight end this year.”
Does this refrain sound familiar?
For the longest time, it was the running joke that “this” would be the year that the tight end was targeted in the Steelers offense, and in 2022, it was factual.
Second year TE Pat Freiermuth built on his rookie season by establishing a consistent connection with Kenny Pickett, and asserting himself as an up-and-coming pass catcher, and decent blocker, in the NFL.
Last summer, I described the Steelers TE room as a quiet position of strength, and heading into the offseason, it’s not so quiet any more.
Muth On the Cusp
Freiermuth finished the season with an injury scare, though it turned out to be nothing more than a knee sprain. So rather than spending his time rehabbing, he will continue working to improve on his 63 reception, 732 yard, 2 touchdown season. What I want to acknowledge here about his stat line is the fact that this was accomplished with a QB carousel at the start of the season, and a rookie signal caller in transition for the other part. Think for a moment of the production that will be possible for Freiermuth in year #3 where those variables are stabilized? A 1000-yard season will be the floor for him in 2023, and any production less than that would be a disappointment.
Zach Gentry continued to emerge as a quality #2 TE as a project player who the Steelers selected from Michigan 4 years ago. A converted QB and one massive human being, Gentry demonstrated reliability as a pass catcher and consistency as a blocker. Some have compared Gentry to former Steeler Matt Spaeth, who was an excellent complement to Heath Miller, and while I don’t believe he’s quite there yet, he is a quality second tight end in this Steelers offense. A free agent, I fully expect the Steelers to re-sign him to at least a conservative 3-year deal. If he is not re-signed, that will open the door for the other Heyward, Connor Heyward, to serve as #2.
Excellence Runs in the Family
Heyward was drafted in the 6th round in 2022 and his game film showed that he was a football player in the truest sense. Not overly great in any one area, Heyward is a jack-of-all-trades, and someone who can make the big play–receiving or rushing–to convert a third down, or score a critical touchdown. With another offseason of development under his belt, Heyward will become a bigger part of the Steelers offense, and someone opposing defenses will have to account for. If there was a player who could truly step up and surprise the league, the younger Heyward gets my vote.
While TE is not a need for the Steelers, that can change very quickly if Gentry is not re-signed. In that event, the team would target a veteran free agent, or look to the later rounds of the draft for some help. Because there are other significant needs on this team, they will make every effort to welcome Gentry back as their long-term #2.