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5 for Friday: Second receiving option might already be on roster

Since the Steelers traded Diontae Johnson last month to the Carolina Panthers, there have been a lot of questions surrounding who will be the team's No. 2 receiver behind George Pickens.

Thing is, that player might already be on the team's roster.

After a season in which Pat Freiermuth and the rest of the Steelers tight ends were largely ignored in the passing game, combining for 62 receptions for 536 yards and two touchdowns, it's easy to overlook that position as being a factor in the passing game.

But remember that Freiermuth caught 123 passes in 2021 and 2022,, becoming just the second tight end in NFL history along with Keith Jackson to have at least 60 receptions in each of his first two seasons in the league.

And regardless of what fantasy football analysts might say, new Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith doesn't ignore the tight end position. Kyle Pitts had over 1,000 yards as a rookie, and even last season, when he was supposedly ignored, he had 53 catches for 667 yards, while Jonnu Smith also had 50 receptions for 582 yards, while they combined for six touchdowns.

Others might point to the fact that Denver in 2023 got just 39 receptions for 362 yards and four touchdowns out of its tight end position with new Steelers quarterback Russell Wilson quarterbacking most of the team's games. But nobody is going to mistake the group of Adam Trautman, Lucas Krull, Nate Adkins, Greg Dulcich and Chris Manhertz for Freiermuth and the rest of the group of tight ends the Steelers have on their roster.

When Wilson has had a talented tight end, he's used him, especially in the red zone. In fact, even when Wilson didn't have great tight ends, he utilized them in the red zone.

Over the course of his career with Seattle and then Denver, tight ends on those teams caught 84 touchdown passes, an average of 7 touchdown catches per season from the position.

The tight end position on Wilson's teams in his 12 seasons have averaged nearly 68 receptions for 769 yards, an average of 11.3 yards per catch.

And remember, for every Jimmy Graham – who played with Wilson for three seasons – there's also seasons where Wilson's top tight end was Zach Miller, Luke Willison, Nick Vannett or Jacob Hollister.

Nothing against some of those players, but they're not as talented as Freiermuth. And with the Steelers' tight end group also including Connor Heyward, Darnell Washington, Rodney Williams and now MyCole Pruitt, signed last week, the Steelers have extremely good depth at the position, as well.

Freiermuth is arguably the best tight end Wilson has played with since Graham, who in three seasons with Wilson caught 170 passes for 2,048 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Still just 25, Freiermuth also is six years younger than Graham was when he played his final season with Wilson.

The Steelers could still add more at wide receiver this offseason, but there's a good chance that their second-leading receiver will be Freiermuth, with the other tight ends also chipping in better numbers than they produced in 2023.

Freiermuth is an excellent receiving threat who is just beginning to come into his own. Tight ends typically take a few years to reach their peak. And Freiermuth should be coming into his prime.

Take a look at photographs of Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth from the 2023 season

• Everyone knows how detrimental turnovers can be in a team's efforts to win games. That's why it's shocking every time we're reminded that the 1979 Steelers turned the ball over an amazing 52 times – and still won the Super Bowl.

Just this week, FTN Fantasy, which is now home to Aaron Schatz' DVOA analytics that used to be available on Football Outsiders, took a look back at that 1979 season.

The Steelers led the NFL in DVOA that season at plus-30.9. The Chargers were second.

The Steelers finished first in the NFL in defensive DVOA that season at minus-22.4 (minus is good on defense), and sixth on offense at plus-9.1.

The amazing thing is that the Steelers threw 26 interceptions, with Terry Bradshaw getting picked off on 25 of them to go along with his 26 touchdown passes. And the Steelers fumbled 47 times, losing 26 of them.

But that was offset by the Steelers intercepting 27 passes and forcing 42 turnovers of their own.

Then, in the postseason, the Steelers turned the ball over another eight times in three games, forcing six.

Somehow, they won 15 of their 19 games that season.

It kind of gives you an idea of just how good that dynasty of the 1970s – which was on its last legs at that point – really was.

Despite all the turnovers, the Steelers outscored opponents 416-262 in the regular season, and then hammered three playoff opponents by a combined score of 92-36.

Also of interest from that season – and to show how the game has changed – the Steelers' 26 interceptions didn't lead the league that season. That dishonor belonged to the Rams, who had 29.

And it was the Rams the Steelers beat in the Super Bowl that season.

• As we sit here two weeks out from the NFL Draft, most of the hay is now in the barn.

The evaluations and scouting are complete, as are player interviews and medical evaluations.

The next step for the Steelers and the other 31 teams in the NFL will be to set their draft boards, putting the finishing touches on their overall rankings.

That has to be the most difficult – and perhaps most rewarding – part of the process.

For example, ranking a cornerback compared to an offensive lineman can't be easy. Their skill sets are completely different, even though they play the same game.

That's where trusting the draft process and the evaluations comes into play. Need also becomes a deciding factor.

Have you ever noticed that the "best player available" also happens to be the best player available at a position of need?

That being said, heading into this year's draft, the only positions at which the Steelers would appear to be not in the market to select – at least in the first round – would be running back, outside linebacker, safety and tight end.

In my opinion, anything else could be on the table.

• If your favorite player looks a little different on the field in 2024, it's because the NFL is introducing 12 new helmets this season, including eight that are made specifically for linemen and quarterbacks.

According to the NFL, five of the new helmets that are being introduced performed better in testing than any helmet previously tested.

"We're proud to see so many new helmets continue the rapid rate of improvement we've seen over the past decade," said Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President overseeing Player Health and Safety. "What's more, the growing availability of position-specific helmets is a central part of our effort to provide players with the best possible protection for their position. Quarterbacks and linemen will have a range of tailored helmets available to them with more positions to come in the next couple of years."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The NFL, in collaboration with the NFLPA, conducts laboratory tests annually on helmets in an effort to improve the performance of helmets and increase player safety.

And helmet specifications have improved as a result. This year, six helmets approved in previous years were placed on the league's "not recommended" list because they don't perform up to the safety level of the newer models.

• On the subject of helmets, the NFL has informed teams they can use a third helmet to their uniform choices in 2025.

The league changed its policy on helmets in 2021 to allow for the use of an alternate helmet design in 2022.

Teams must inform the league office of their desire to wear an alternate helmet for the 2025 season by May 1, 2024. The alternate helmets can only be worn with one of the organization's authorized optional uniforms such as classic, alternate or color rush options.

There will still be some rules in place.

Teams must obtain an entire set of alternate color helmets for all players. They also must be the same make, model and size as each player's primary helmet. All alternate helmets must be made available to all players at the start of training camp and should be the same fit as the player's regular helmet. And all alternate helmets must be worn in practice in the week leading up to the game in which they are being utilized at a minimum.

Thirteen NFL teams wore alternate helmets in 2022, with more teams joining in the action in 2023.

Many of the alternate helmets have been black, which, of course, has been the iconic base color for the Steelers' helmets since 1963.

The only exception for the Steelers has been the gold helmets they wore as part of their throwback uniforms won from 2007 through 2011.