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Steelers-By-Position: TEs

The final in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 18.

Zach Gentry, Vance McDonald, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Nick Vannett
(Free Agent Scorecard: 1 unrestricted – Nick Vannett)

A common perception was this was the position that had the best chance of helping out an offense playing without its franchise quarterback for all but six quarters of a 16-game season. But in reality, this was the position that was most impacted because the offense had to play without its franchise quarterback for all but six quarters of a 16-game season.

Tight ends often serve as security blankets, they can open up the field for the wide receivers, they can be an asset to the running game because they are physical enough to move defenders and athletic enough to punish safeties in the passing game when they get too close to the line of scrimmage. But all of that is predicated on the quarterback, and without a quarterback who demands the respect of the opposing defense, tight ends often are rendered toothless.

It's not a debate that the Steelers tight ends didn't produce the way the coaching staff would've liked, the way the offense needed, but a lot of their effectiveness was limited naturally by Ben Roethlisberger being sidelined and the Steelers having to resort to a couple of replacements who came into the season with absolutely no regular season NFL game experience. None.

Without Roethlisberger, and with their most veteran wide receiver (Donte Moncrief) playing poorly, opposing defense gradually found it was best to crowd both the line of scrimmage – to bottle up the Steelers running attack – and pack the middle of the field – to force the inexperienced quarterbacks to work the ball to young wide receivers outside the numbers.

While Mason Rudolph seemed to be figuring this out and had the arm strength to do something about it, Devlin Hodges did not have the requisite arm strength to thrive on the perimeter and was kept on a rather short leash as the Steelers tried to manufacture victories by using their stingy, playmaking defense as opposed to operating a traditional NFL offense.

In the end, nothing really worked, at least not well enough for the Steelers to qualify for the playoffs despite fielding a defense that led the NFL in both sacks and takeaways and allowed an average of fewer than two touchdowns a game. But when the season began, Roethlisberger was the starting quarterback, and the Steelers' depth chart at tight end included veterans Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble and rookie fifth-round pick Zach Gentry.

But things unraveled before the first month of the regular season ended. Grimble injured a calf against the 49ers and had to be put on the injured reserve list on Sept. 25, which was three days after the game, and also in that loss to San Francisco McDonald injured a shoulder that would cause him to miss the subsequent game, which was to be against the Bengals on a Monday night at Heinz Field.

The Steelers responded to the reality of suddenly having nobody at tight end except for Gentry by sending a fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft to Seattle for Nick Vannett, at the time a fourth-year pro from Ohio State with 48 NFL receptions for 463 yards and four touchdowns in his career.

The season ended with McDonald, Vannett, and Gentry combining for 52 catches for 405 yards. McDonald started 14 of the 16 games, missing the first game in the home-and-home series vs. the Bengals because of the shoulder he injured the previous weekend in San Francisco, and then he missed the Week 15 matchup with Buffalo because of a concussion he sustained the previous weekend in Arizona against the Cardinals.

The tight ends combined for 52 receptions in 2019 compared with 86 in 2018, but a more critical drop-off came in average per receptions, which fell from 13.0 in 2018 to 7.8 in 2019.

Whether the Steelers' offseason analysis determines that the tight ends were a victim of the circumstances that undermined the offense in 2019, or that the tight ends were a large part of the reason why the offense was so ineffective in 2019, there should be little argument the position will have to be reinforced between now and the start of the 2020 regular season.

A common criticism of Vance McDonald is that he's injury-prone, but last season he missed just two starts, and one of those was the result of a concussion, which really isn't something that can be prevented. Now that the Collective Bargaining Agreement has been ratified, and teams have been notified that the salary cap will be set at $198.2 million for 2020, the Steelers will be able to begin getting theirs in order. One of the players commonly associated with being a cap casualty this offseason has been McDonald, but the depth chart doesn't show anyone capable of being a No. 1 tight end should those predictions about him come true.

Nick Vannett could make a nice No. 2 tight end for the Steelers, but he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins on March 18, and while he has said he would like to remain with the Steelers strange things can happen when backup tight ends hit the open market. And for an example of how strange those things can be, look no farther than Jesse James, who received a four-year, $22.6 million contract with $10.5 million guaranteed one year ago from the Detroit Lions and then finished the season with 16 catches for 142 yards (8.9 average) and no touchdowns.

Zach Gentry came to the Steelers in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and while that's the same draft capital the team had to spend to add James in 2015, the players are nothing alike in terms of their readiness to contribute early in their NFL careers. While James came to the NFL having played 33 games as a tight end for Penn State, Gentry went to Michigan as a quarterback, was listed as a quarterback as a freshman, and then sat out his sophomore season as he began the transition to tight end. Gentry played 21 college games as a tight end over his last two college seasons, and he did it well enough to catch 49 passes for 817 yards, but there is a lot more to the position in the NFL than catching the ball when it's thrown to you.

Gentry still has to learn the physical demands of the position, and as a quarterback he wasn't able to develop any of those instincts, so in one important aspect of his new job he virtually is starting from scratch. This isn't to mean Gentry cannot or will not be able to develop the techniques and instincts he'll need to become a viable NFL tight end, but counting on that to come together for the start of the 2020 season is probably expecting too much. More likely is that in his second season Gentry is able to contribute some as a receiver without being a liability when he's asked to handle the blocking assignments of a typical NFL tight end.

The Steelers' salary cap situation isn't going to allow them to use this free agency period to impact their depth chart at tight end in a significant way, and they believe that McDonald is a legitimate No. 1 at the position when he's healthy. There is no obvious path to an easy fix of their tight end depth chart, but they've got to find a way to reinforce it and get more from the position because what they got from it in 2019 wasn't good enough.