2021 Steelers Training Camp Preview: The Tight Ends

It’s hard to believe but the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Training Camp is right around the corner. As we countdown the days until camp begins, each week SCU will highlight one position group, detailing the players who will be competing for a spot on the Steelers final 53-man roster at the end of this Summer.

The tight end position didn’t look like an immediate need for the Pittsburgh Steelers as the entered the 2021 offseason. However, the position has seen an overhaul from where it was just two seasons ago.

The Steelers have been trying to sort out their TE1 spot since the Heath Miller’s retirement in 2016.

Since, Pittsburgh has drafted Jesse James (5th round, 2015), signed Ladarius Green (who was oft-injured and lasted a year) and traded for Vance McDonald and Nick Vannett, aside from the players named below.

McDonald is the only player listed above who somewhat worked out for the Steelers, but his rough and tumble style led to needing at least two tight ends, as McDonald would miss some games. (Note: he didn’t miss as many as some fans claim outside of his first injury-hampered season.)

There was some rumblings among various bloggers that the team could look to bring back Jesse James, who left in free agency a few years ago to the Lions and was recently released – that was merely clickbait content and never had any legs to the story, especially since James left with a few unkind words for the organization which drafted him. (Ditto for Vannett.)

What’s left, however, is a solid stable of players who should provide some stability to the group for the first time in a while. Here’s a preview of the 2021 tight end group heading into camp.

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Eric Ebron

A higher profile signing last offseason, Ebron is more of a receiving threat than a blocking one – something the former first-round pick would likely admit himself.

There’s nothing wrong with that, as a lot of NFL teams deploy more than one tight end, with the position having branched off into two specialties: receiving and blocking.

Those who can do both are rare, however. Eric Ebron is also rare in that he creates mismatches and can be a big target in the red zone.

The only caveat is that Ebron has had inconsistency catching the ball throughout his career – something we all witnessed last season in Pittsburgh. If he can cleanup just a few of those would-be catches, his profile as a player instantly jumps into Pro Bowl consideration as an offensive weapon.

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Pat Freiermuth

The Steelers shocked fans and analysts alike by making tight end their second-highest priority in this year’s NFL Draft, selecting Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth as the second player taken at his position with the 55th overall pick.

Freiermuth was considered the best player in his position class not named Kyle Pitts – a freak generational athlete who like transcends other tight ends anyway – and was talked about as the best all-around tight end available. That is, he makes up for the lack of blocking seen with Ebron and may bring back memories of a more rounded players like Heath Miller.

Freiermuth had one of the top three pass-catching percentages in all of college football last year, making him a reliable target when he’s not doing the dirty work in run and pass blocking situations.

Like the player he’s replacing in Vance McDonald, I see the rookie Freiermuth playing immediately, but he won’t be an every down asset – McDonald wasn’t either.

Look for Freiermuth to take the TE2 spot shortly after camp begins and parlay it into 20-30 snaps in September which could creep into more than half a game, and 40+ snaps by December.

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Kevin Rader

It’s not often I would jump the gun and list a journeyman practice squad player and undrafted college free agent ahead of someone hand-picked in the draft. However, Rader seems to have impressed the Pittsburgh Steelers staff more than former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry.

It was Rader who got meaningful snaps near the end of the 2020 season, playing in the Week 17 finale against the Cleveland Browns and proving his value not only as a blocker, but also as a special teams player.

One specific play stood out to Mike Tomlin’s staff, and was noted in his postgame presser: a pancake block on Browns DE Myles Garrett – no small feat!

As a willing special teams player as well, I can see the former Youngstown State product stealing the TE3 spot in training camp. He can also catch passes when tasked to, owning one of his college’s most famous last-second, game-winning plays in its history.

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Zach Gentry

Rader’s ascension isn’t good news for Gentry, the 2019 fifth-round pick from Michigan who entered the Steelers system as a developmental style player.

As the team’s TE3, Gentry was often inactive; which isn’t unusual for the third tight end.

What Gentry has going against him is trouble staying healthy and getting on the field through his first two seasons. Appearing in only six games, he’s had a single catch for four yards.

He hasn’t flashed his presence much during the preseason or any other time – but as a third option and someone who may rarely play, he still provides a better option three or four spots deep in this positional group headed into camp.

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Dax Raymond

If you don’t remember Raymond’s first year with the Steelers, don’t worry: you’re not alone.

Someone who popped up in our early draft mocks in 2019, the Utah State product fell out of the draft entirely, signing with the Chicago Bears… and if you know anything of the Bears 2019 tight end depth chart, it was top heavy with something like eight players at the position.

As such, Raymond was released with an injury settlement, then signed to the Bears practice squad, then released shortly before the 2020 NFL Draft. The Steelers would add him a week or so before the start of their own 2020 training camp and he would flirt with the practice squad before being re-signed this offseason to a future’s contract.

As more of a receiving prototype, I see Raymond in the same position Rader was in two seasons ago: someone who can continue to make an impression where possible and attempt to slide up the depth charts.

If he does so, he could have more of a future long-term as Ebron enters the final year of his two-year deal, and with uncertainty Gentry sticks to the roster, Raymond could be the Steelers practice squad tight end. (Provided the league keeps expanded roster exemptions adopted last season.)

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