2023 Steelers Post-Draft Roster Review: The Tight Ends
The major events of the 2023 NFL offseason are now complete. With the free agency period and the NFL Draft now behind us, we look ahead at how the Steelers roster has molded from the end of last season until now, and evaluate those changes heading toward training camp, the preseason, and the regular season.
One area that most fans and analysts weren’t looking at during the Steelers offseason was the tight end group. However, the team still made some moves this spring to upgrade the room. Here’s a look at last year’s and this year’s depth charts from that perspective.
End of Season Depth Chart
Pat Freiermuth and Connor Heyward are both under contract for 2023. Heyward, a 2022 rookie, doubles as a fullback, and is more of a hybrid player. He’s listed here instead of in the running backs group due to a common misconception about his usage in the Steelers offense: he’s much smaller (6-0, 230) than his counterparts.
Freiermuth finished second in receptions and third in receiving yards among all eligible pass catchers on the team in 2022. Gentry caught 19 passes for 132 yards in 2022 but found his role to be more that of a blocking tight end than a receiving one.
Free Agency Review
The Steelers weren’t active in pursuing any big-ticket free agents at the tight end position this offseason. Instead, they retained Zach Gentry, who was an unrestricted free agent, by signing the former Michigan product to a one-year deal.
Former Tennessee-Martin TE Rodney Williams was signed in January to a reserve/future contract.
NFL Draft Review
The biggest shakeup of this group came in the third round of this year’s draft, as the Steelers played the board to perfection, as Georgia Bulldog Darnell Washington fell into their lap, despite moving back from pick 80 to pick 93 in a trade with the Carolina Panthers.
The excitement over Washington is that he acts as a willing “sixth offensive lineman” who punishes opponents with his blocking prowess but isn’t immune to catching passes too. Over this last two college seasons, Washington has caught 38 passes for 608 yards and 3 touchdowns – in only 27 games.
Post-Draft Depth Chart
- Pat Freiermuth
- Zach Gentry
- Darnell Washington
- Rodney Williams
- Connor Heyward (TE/FB)
Washington will compete with Gentry for playing time this season, and any concerns about his knee – which is why he fell later in the draft – are made up for by having two veterans on the team with him.
Gentry has developed into a nice blocker, but Pat Freiermuth regressed in this department last season. However, it’s Freiermuth that is on the cusp of a major breakout season that may see his name mentioned with other household ones around the league. His yards-per-reception climbed last season from 8.3 to 11.6 despite his touchdown totals dipping from 7 to 2. The jump however, was the chunk yard plays, accumulating 732 yards to 487 his rookie season.
Connor Heyward is more of a utility player used to create mismatches in a variety of ways. It’s to be seen if he can be a full-time fullback – which really means about five snaps maximum in a given game – but he shined nicely later in the season. Heyward would finish with 12.6 yards-per-reception on 12 catches and had a lone touchdown.
The touchdown factor may seem limiting to this group, but overall, the Steelers only passed for 12 of those last year: and one of those was thrown from a wide receiver. The goal for this improved group should be in both the run and pass game, where they’ll be relied upon more frequently to help set the edge for RB Najee Harris, as well as help move the sticks in key down-and-distance situations for QB Kenny Pickett.
My personal opinion is that both Freiermuth and Washington will have become nasty redzone threats, with the former getting back to his 2021 7 touchdown total and the latter adding a score or two as well. Overall, for a group that has struggled for consistent playmakers since the days of Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, the Steelers finally have a core of potential stars in the making.