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Steelers-by-position: TEs

Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 16.

Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Jace Sternberger
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Eric Ebron)

From the time the Steelers' 2021 season opened with a victory over the Bills in Buffalo and ended with a Wild Card Round loss to the Chiefs in Kansas City, the team had remade the top of its depth chart at tight end. Pat Freiermuth had started as an unproven rookie and ended as the unquestioned No. 1 tight end on the roster, a player who eclipsed Heath Miller's rookie receiving numbers and steadily improved as a blocker; Zach Gentry had evolved from a developmental curiosity trying to transform himself from the wide receiver/quarterback he was in high school and during his first season at the University of Michigan to the best blocking tight end on the Steelers' roster; and Eric Ebron had gone from a player who started 12 of 23 games since signing a contract as an unrestricted free agent in 2020 to a member of the injured reserve list with a knee injury.

Ebron had been added to provide Ben Roethlisberger with another weapon in the passing attack, and in his 23 games with the Steelers, he contributed 68 catches on 109 targets for 642 yards (9.4 average) and six touchdowns, but he also was charged with eight drops and wasn't considered a reliable blocker. At the end of his rookie season, Freiermuth had 60 catches on 79 targets for 497 yards (8.3 average) and seven touchdowns, he was charged with two drops, and there was no comparison between the two when it came to blocking.

In 2019, the Steelers spent a fifth-round pick, the 141st overall, on Gentry, and by the end of his second season the jury was still out on whether this developmental pick would ever develop. But when he reported to training camp in 2021, Gentry had re-made his body and over the course of the next six months he had outgrown the "developmental" label.

During the preseason, Coach Mike Tomlin had said Gentry was the Steelers' best blocking tight end and come the end of the regular season Tomlin doubled down on that assessment.

"I think he's solidified that opinion (of being the team's best blocking tight end)," said Tomlin a couple of days before the Jan. 3 game vs. the Browns at Heinz Field. "He's been highly consistent and improving in that area over the course of the year, and more importantly than him being 'our best blocker,' he fits a job description. You play some teams that use a 3-4 defense, and the people playing on the edge for those teams roughly weigh 250 pounds. And when you play a team that uses a 4-3 defense, those teams have 280-pound people who play on the end of the line of scrimmage, and so you better have a 280-pound-like tight end on your roster for those weeks when you're trying to wage that battle of the end of the line of scrimmage in the run game. Tight end vs. edge player is less significant when you play 3-4 teams, and you know you got a guy like Pat (Freiermuth) who's 255 pounds and capable of matching up against the 255-pounds guys like Alex Highsmith. But when you play those 4-3 teams, that 30 pounds is a significant difference, and that's why Zach Gentry's role is significant. We anticipate and we expect him to be our best blocker. He's 25 to 30 pounds bigger than the other tight ends on our roster. He's got a specific function. He's got to match up vs. those 4-3 ends, and he better represent himself well in those matchups."

Heath Miller generally is considered the best tight end in franchise history, and Pat Freiermuth is off to a good start in living up to the comparisons with him. As rookies, Freiermuth finished with more catches, 60-39, for more yards, 497-459, and more touchdowns, 7-6, than Miller, who was the team's No. 1 pick in 2005.

As things stand today, this might be the most settled position on the Steelers' depth chart. Typically, the team carries three tight ends on the 53-man roster at the start of the season, and it's not difficult to imagine the Steelers being rather content to open the 2022 season with the same players on the depth chart they had there at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Freiermuth showed improvement throughout his rookie season, and Gentry literally had grown into the role the Steelers had in mind for him back in 2019.

Both players also are still playing on their rookie contracts, which makes them very cap friendly, although Gentry is entering the final year of his rookie contract while Freiermuth has three more seasons remaining on his.

It's likely the Steelers will look to add some competition for Kevin Rader, who ended 2021 as the No. 3 tight end, but Rader is a good blocker, reliable if not dynamic when it comes to catching the ball, and is a consistent contributor on special teams.

Signed to a futures contract and available to join the competition when the offseason program begins is Jace Sternberger, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound third-year pro from Texas A&M, who caught 48 passes for 832 yards (17.3 average) and 10 touchdowns for the Aggies in 2018. Sternberger was a No. 3 pick by Green Bay in the 2019 NFL Draft, and in 18 games with the Packers in 2019-20, he caught 12 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.

Based on other areas of the team, where the Steelers will have to use this offseason to fill needs or strengthen depth or concern themselves with unrestricted free agents, tight end is one spot where it appears things are relatively settled.
NEXT: Inside linebackers
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