Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 17.
TIGHT ENDS (5)
Eric Ebron, Zach Gentry, Charles Jones, Kevin Rader, Dax Raymond
(Free Agent Scorecard: none)
Take a look at the best photos taken of the Steelers tight ends during the 2020 season
A LAST LOOK AT 2020
One year ago, the Steelers' most significant move of the offseason was signing Eric Ebron to a two-year contract worth a reported $12 million. The reasoning behind the decision was in keeping with what was the unofficial motto of that offseason: provide Ben Roethlisberger with weapons for his return from surgery on his right elbow that caused him to miss all but six quarters of the 2019 season.
Ebron, a six-year veteran at the time of the signing came with a reputation as a tight end who was capable of being a dynamic receiver, especially down the field when playing with a franchise quarterback, but that quality came with an inability to handle the blocking demands of the position and with a reputation for dropping passes.
Over the course of 2020, Ebron proved to be just as advertised. He finished the regular season with 56 catches for 558 yards (10.0 average), and those receptions were good for five touchdowns and 30 first downs. He was charged with seven drops, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, and his blocking could be described as below-the-line.
Because Ebron was ineffective as a blocker, the Steelers utilized Vance McDonald for that aspect of tight end play and also brought in Jerald Hawkins as an extra offensive lineman in running situations. But McDonald has retired and Hawkins can become an unrestricted free agent on March 17, and even with those two guys the Steelers running attack finished last in the NFL.
As for the other tight ends currently under contract to the Steelers, Zach Gentry sustained a torn ACL against the Jaguars in Jacksonville in late November; Kevin Rader was either inactive or on the practice squad for all but one regular season game in 2020; and Dax Raymond and Charles Jones signed futures contracts.
Take a look at photographs of Steelers TE Eric Ebron from the 2020 season
A STAT THAT STANDS OUT
In the 51 seasons since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, a tight end has led the Steelers in receiving twice. Eric Green had 63 catches in 1993, and Heath Miller finished with 71 receptions in 2012.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2021
Even though the Steelers typically keep just three tight ends on their 53-man roster during a regular season, the team is going to have to address this position during the offseason, and address it for more than just depth.
Ebron will be back and playing on the final season of his contract, but after him everyone else at this position carries a huge question mark.
Gentry started his college career as a quarterback and so was by definition a developmental prospect when the Steelers used a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft on him. During his second NFL season, he was deprived of an offseason program and a preseason schedule, which combined to limit his exposure to his new position and by extension slowed his development. Now, he has the added hurdle of having to rehabilitate a significant knee injury as he prepares for his third NFL season.
Rader is a soon-to-be-26-year-old who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie with Green Bay in 2018. He signed a futures contract with the Steelers on Jan. 9, 2019 and has been with the team ever since, mostly on the practice squad. Rader is an enthusiastic blocker and has shown himself to be a contributor on special teams, but there is something missing in his game that has prevented him from earning a spot on the 53-man roster coming out of training camp.
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers approach the task of adding to this position during the offseason. There isn't a lot of money for them to spend in free agency, and it's believed that if a team is looking to draft a dual-purpose tight end the prospect pool is sufficiently shallow that it's going to require using a No. 1 or a No. 2 pick on the position. What's way less uncertain, however, is that the Steelers cannot afford to ignore the position between now and the start of the 2021 season.
NEXT: Inside Linebackers