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Steelers Position Reviews: Tight ends

Here is the next in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2023 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 13.

Tight ends (4): Pat Freiermuth, Darnell Washington, Connor Heyward, Rodney Williams

A Last Look at 2023

Pat Freiermuth entered the 2023 season as one of just two tight ends in NFL history to have recorded 60 or more catches in each of his first two seasons.

But injuries and some of the Steelers' overall struggles throwing the ball at times caused him to miss becoming the first tight end in NFL history to record 60 or more catches in each of his first three seasons, as Freiermuth was limited to 32 receptions for 308 yards and two touchdowns.

That said, there were stretches where Freiermuth looked like he had in his first two seasons, both in terms of his own play and his usage.

His two touchdown catches came in the Steelers' first three games, before a Week 4 hamstring injury landed him on injured reserve. And after he returned from that injury in Week 10, Freiermuth set career-highs with a 9-catch, 120-yard game at Cincinnati, then had five receptions for 76 yards in the Steelers' playoff loss at Buffalo.

Freiermuth's blocking also was better later in the season, as the Steelers' running game became more of a factor.

Part of the issue in the passing game for Freiermuth was an overall lack of targets. He averaged 6.1 targets per game in 2022. In 2023, that number fell to 5.2 per game. His yards per target also fell from 7.5 in 2022 to 6.6.

And it wasn't just Freiermuth who saw his usage in the passing game fall off in 2023, as the position was ignored more overall than it had been in 2022.

Freiermuth, Zach Gentry and Connor Heyward combined for 138 targets in 2022, catching 94 passes for 1,015 yards and three touchdowns. In 2023, the Steelers tight ends combined for 93 targets, meaning they were thrown one fewer pass than the receptions they had in 2022. That led to an overall decline in production to a disappointing 62 receptions for 536 yards and two scores.

Rookie Darnell Washington replaced Gentry as the team's primary blocking tight end and while the third-round draft pick shows promise in that area, he was targeted just 10 times in the passing game, producing 7 receptions for 61 yards.

Heyward saw his targets double from the 17 he received as a rookie in 2022 to 34 in 2023, but his overall production didn't follow suit. Though he had 23 receptions after catching 12 passes in his first season, his uptick in yardage (167-151) was not what would be expected for a player who showed himself to be a matchup issue down the field. Like Freiermuth, Heyward saw his yards per target drop significantly, falling from 8.9 to 4.9.

Rodney Williams was elevated from the practice squad when Freiermuth was placed on injured reserve and was so good on special teams during that period that he remained on the roster once Freiermuth returned.

He wound up playing 189 snaps on special teams and finished with six tackles, proving to be a valuable asset.

One Stat That Stood Out

Seven individual tight ends had more targets than the Steelers tight ends had as a group in 2023. They were Evan Engram (143), T.J. Hockenson (127), David Njoku (123), Travis Kelce (121), Sam LaPorta (120), Tre McBride (106) and Jake Ferguson (102).

Looking Ahead to 2024

Getting the tight ends involved in the passing game again will be part of the task for new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, especially since his offenses at previous stops have utilized plenty of two- and three-tight end packages.

Kyle Pitts (90) and Jonnu Smith (70) combined for 160 targets for Smith's team in Atlanta last season, so there's a good chance the Steelers tight ends see an uptick in their usage in the passing game in 2024. Both Pitts and Smith topped 50 receptions in 2023, as well.

The Steelers have utilized 11 personnel with just one tight end on the field as their primary offensive package for several seasons, including 73.1 percent of the time in 2023. Smith's Falcons used it 15.5 percent of the time, which was 32nd in the league.

But the Falcons were No. 1 in the league in usage of 12 personnel with two tight ends on the field at 41.8 percent.

Freiermuth and Heyward are weapons in the passing game. And there's plenty of room for Washington for growth in that part of the game, as well.

Washington also should continue to grow as a blocker, as well, while Freiermuth will continue to develop in that role.

Tight ends typically don't peak in terms of development until they reach their late 20s. Freiermuth and Heyward are both just 25, while Williams is 23 and Washington 22.

This is a group that could take a massive step forward in 2024.