After months of speculation and consideration to everyone from Malik Willis to Bailey Zappe, the Pittsburgh Steelers have made their choice for the future of their team at quarterback. Of course, with the Steelers having both Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph already on the roster (and drafting South Dakota State University QB Chris Oladukon in the seventh round), talk immediately shifted to there being discussions of a genuine quarterback competition at this year’s training camp.
There’s been a lot said about that exciting proposition, but the Steelers have also set themselves up for a second camp competition that is certainly less than conventional. Pre-draft, many Steelers fans wondered if the team just might take Michigan State TE, HB, and FB, Connor Heyward late in the 2022 NFL Draft. Well, they did just that, adding an unprecedented fourth set of brothers to their roster. Now, it sets up a less-than-usual competition on the Steelers’ roster.
The Battle for TE3
I covered this pretty extensively a couple of months ago, but the Steelers are heading into camp with questions surrounding the tight end position. After a couple of years struggling to find a replacement to Steelers great Heath Miller, the team has been unable to find a consistent stable of tight ends to round out their team. That may change this year as the Steelers look to bring back Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry as the number one and two options, respectively, and take advantage of the bevy of other options that they have on the roster for that third position.
Today we’ll be taking a look at the state of the Steelers tight end room.
Pat Freiermuth: TE1
Man is it nice to be able to give little thought to the Steelers starting tight end. After seasons featuring the likes of Ladarius Green and an injury-prone Eric Ebron, having an exciting budding star in the starting slot is a welcome change. The Pittsburgh Steelers used their second round pick in the 2021 draft to select the standout Penn State tight end, and his rookie season did not disappoint.
With chants of “Muuuutttthhh” filling stadiums with each catch he made, Freiermuth was able to wrack up an impressive 497 yards and seven touchdowns in his rookie season. Those seven touchdowns were good enough to put him in 6th place league-wide in that category.
In the lead up to the 2022 season, Freiermuth looks to put on more muscle weight in order to be a more physical receiving threat and to improve his blocking. Look for number 88 to take a big step forward this year.
Zach Gentry: TE2
Former University of Michigan Wolverines’ quarterback and tight end, Zach Gentry, has been a transformation project for the Steelers since he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Gentry seemingly took a giant leap forward last year both as a blocker and a pass catcher when called upon.
After switching from quarterback to tight end in the 2017 Wolverines’ season, Gentry went on to catch 817 yards and four touchdowns in this junior and senior seasons, before heading to the draft in 2019.
Gentry, after catching only one pass in his previous two seasons, caught nineteen passes for 167 yards in the 2021 campaign, providing a nice compliment to Freiermuth in two tight end sets, and stepping in for him as needed. What you like to see about Gentry is that he has continued to improve as both a pass catcher and a blocker, which is exactly what you need out of your second tight end. If Gentry has a solid season, the Steelers may have found themselves the Matt Spaeth to their Heath Miller for years to come.
Connor Heyward: A Contender for TE3
The Steelers used their 2022 sixth round draft pick on Connor Heyward, and per Derek Watt at least, it doesn’t seem like they intend to utilize him as their primary fullback. This backs up what Steelers Tight Ends Coach Alfredo Roberts had previously said about Heyward’s primary position, and all reports from OTA’s seems to indicate that that’s where Heyward has been working.
As a jack-of-all-trades player at Michigan State, Heyward was able to amass a solid resume, scoring 6 receiving and 5 rushing TDs, with a career average 7.4 yards per reception. Heyward was able to demonstrate clear momentum during his transition from running back to tight end at MSU, with his 2021 season being by far his most successful single receiving season at 326 total yards. It’s worth noting that he was able to put up these solid numbers despite the fact that Michigan State had a fairly average offensive season, and Heyward was the fourth option at tight end.
Heyward is the odds-on favorite to be the Steelers’ third tight end, given the draft capital they placed on him and his attractiveness as a special teams player. If I were a betting man, I’d say Heyward makes the final 53.
Kevin Rader: A Contender for TE3
Kevin Rader, in my view, is the second most likely option to make the 53-man roster as the third tight end, and will give Heyward serious competition for the spot. Rader had a solid career as a Youngstown State Penguin, with 489 receiving yards and three touchdowns. He joined the Steelers during the 2020 season as part of the expanded practice squad, and has participated in two games as a starter.
While Rader has not put up many yards in his young NFL career, he clearly has shown some staying power with the organization, and has the traditional size that you’d like to see from a third blocking tight end.
Jace Sternberger: Longshot for TE3
After being signed to the the practice squad amidst injuries to Eric Ebron and continuing COVID-19 concerns, Jace Sternberger was brought back on a futures contract for the 2022 season. Playing with the University of Kansas, as well as Texas A&M, in college, Sternberger had a career 832 yards and 10 touchdowns, with all but five yards of that total coming in his breakout junior season at Texas A&M.
In a previous stint with the Green Bay Packers, Sternberger had 12 receptions for 114 yards and one touchdown. Sternberger does have the appropriate size and draft pedigree to be a veteran TE-3 option, but it seems very unlikely that he would displace longtime Steeler Kevin Rader, let alone 2022 draft pick Connor Heyward. The Steelers should aim to stash him on the practice squad.
What do yinz think? Are you happy with the Steelers’ options at tight end? Should they sign someone else? Comment here or tweet at me at @JakeVasilj.