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5 for Friday: Freiermuth gives Steelers a leg up at TE

Throughout the regular season, pundits lamented the decline of tight ends across the NFL as a number of star players at the position missed time this season.

That led to Kansas City's Travis Kelce once again being a dominant force at the tight end position, as he finished the regular season with more than 400 yards and 19 receptions more than the next closest tight end.

But the fact is, Kelce is to the tight end position what Tom Brady has been for so long to quarterbacks. He ruins the curve.

In fact, heading into Sunday's Super Bowl, Kelce has now played 17 career playoff games, the equivalent of one NFL season. In those 17 games, he has 127 receptions for 1,467 yards and 15 touchdowns.

That's pretty special whether you're a tight end or a wide receiver.

But the fact is, Kelce didn't become a star – or even an above-average – tight end until his third NFL season.

He played in one game as a rookie before knee surgery ended his season. In his second season, he had 67 receptions. In his third season, that jumped to 75 catches. In Year 4, he finally had his first 1,000-yard season.

Point being, tight ends often take a few years to reach their peak.

Which brings us to Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth.

In his first two seasons, Freiermuth has 123 receptions. He and Keith Jackson are the only tight ends in NFL history to record at least 60 receptions in each of their first two seasons.

Freiermuth's two-year total is the eighth-most in NFL history for a tight end in his first two seasons. Jackson leads the way with 144 catches, while Freiermuth's total is more than such luminaries of the position as Jason Witten, Jeremy Shockey, Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow and Mike Ditka.

And while not every team in the NFL has an above-average player at tight end, those that do have a big advantage.

Look at this year's Super Bowl participants for proof of that. Kelce and Philadelphia's Dallas Goedert are two of the top players at the position in the league.

Even though those two had byes in the opening round of this postseason, tight ends starred for the winning teams – and some of the losing ones.

Minnesota's T.J. Hockenson had 10 receptions for 129 yards. Gerald Everett of the Chargers had six catches for 109 yards and a touchdown. Dalton Shultz of the Cowboys had seven receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns, while Jacksonville's Evan Engram had seven catches for 93 yards and a score. Baltimore's Mark Andrews had five catches for 73 yards, while Miami's Mike Gesicki, Buffalo's Dawson Knox, the Giants' Daniel Bellinger and Tampa Bay's Cameron Brate all caught touchdown passes.

An argument could have been made that, outside of Cincinnati, the other three teams that made the NFL's conference championship games – Philadelphia, Kansas City and San Francisco – had stars at the tight end position.

As a team, the Steelers got 94 receptions for 1,025 yards out of the position in 2022. That's solid, and it's only going to get better as quarterback Kenny Pickett gets more of a mastery of the offense.

Good tight ends are defensive mismatches. And the Steelers have two definite mismatches in Freiermuth and Connor Heyward.

That bodes well for the future.

• NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted something at his yearly Super Bowl press conference.

Diagnosed concussions were up 18 percent across the NFL this season. But the reason for that was because the league also was more cautious when it came to checking players for potential concussions.

"I think that's a reason why concussions went up this year, because we had a broader definition," Goodell said. "If you have more evaluations you're going to have more concussions. Any time we can change the protocols to make it safer for our players, we're going to do that. We're not afraid of having them diagnosed. That's important to us and why we encourage players to come forward when they have symptoms so we can make sure they are handled properly."

That's great. The league should be taking concussions more seriously as it is. But after watching the 49ers have to put an obviously injured Brock Purdy back into the NFC Championship against the Eagles after Purdy's backup, Josh Johnson, had been pulled because of a concussion.

In 2011, the NFL eliminated the emergency quarterback rule when it also upped game day rosters to 46. That doesn't preclude teams from dressing three quarterbacks on game day, but considering about half the league doesn't even carry three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, no teams carry three QBs on their 46-man game day roster.

But the NFL's Competition Committee on which Mike Tomlin sits might want to take a look at how that is handled in light of players being pulled from games much more often now than what used to be the case.

• At the very least, the NFL admitting what anyone who was watching closely this season already knew – that it was pulling players who took any kind of blow to the head – might make teams take a long look at how they build the quarterback position on their roster.

For years, if a team had a star quarterback who also happened to be durable, it wasn't always concerned about having a viable backup.

Now, however, that becomes more important than ever before. And your backup had better have a skillset that is similar to that of your starter so that you can run the same offense if something happens to the starter. After all, you don't have a lot of time during the week to run plays specific to your backup.

• The Steelers led the NFL in plays per offensive possession during the 2022 season at 6.5. They converted 44.9 percent of their third downs for the season, seventh-best in the NFL. And after their Week 9 bye, that jumped to over 54 percent. Buffalo led the NFL at 50.7 percent for the season.

Yet they finished tied for 26th in the NFL in scoring at 18.1 points per game.

The reason? They finished 22nd in the league in explosive plays (runs of 10 or more yards and passes of 20 or more yards) and 22nd in red zone touchdown percentage. Their 44 field goal attempts led the NFL.

Now, if they get more explosive plays in 2023 and improve their red zone percentage by five percent and are forced to kick, say, 10 fewer field goals, they should see their scoring average increase.

If they also get more explosive plays, that should also be the case.

And all of that is to be expected of quarterback Kenny Pickett in his second season in the NFL.

• NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said this week at his Super Bowl press conference that he would like to get rid of the NFL Scouting Combine.

His reasoning? Prospective players shouldn't have to give up medical rights and submit to "embarrassing" questions.

Instead, he doesn't want college players to have to submit to medical testing and wants regional combines instead of everything happening in one place.

"As soon as you show up, you have to waive all of your medical rights and you … sit there and endure embarrassing questions," Smith told reporters. "And I think that's horrible, and I don't want to pooh pooh any of that, but would you want your son to spend hours inside of an MRA (machine) and then be evaluated by team doctors, who are, by the way, only doing it for one reason? What's that reason? To decrease your draft value."

What a load of malarkey.

So, let's get this straight. Smith doesn't want NFL teams, who are going to dole out millions of dollars to players, to have any access to the medical information that might be germane to their job? Oh, and by the way, there are plenty of job interviews that young people go to in which they are asked questions, even embarrassing ones.

To also say that team doctors are only looking for something that will lower a player's draft stock also is disingenuous. Without a proper medical checkup, for example, would the Steelers have felt confident in selecting wide receiver George Pickens in the second round of last year's draft?

Are there some players whose draft stock takes a hit because of something that shows up during their medical checks? Absolutely. But how many others have fears of major injuries quelled by those checkups?

The NFL Scouting Combine serves a purpose. It was originally started as a way for teams to do medical tests on a large number of players in one place.

It's only in the past decade or so that it's grown beyond that.

But it's also a job interview. And if a player declines to take part in that job interview, they take the chance that it could affect their ability to acquire a job in the NFL.

Playing in the NFL is a privilege, not a right.