Ed Note: We’re aware of an issue with pop up ads and working as quickly as possible to resolve the problem. Thank you for your patience.
Did the Pittsburgh Steelers gain any clarity into their tight end group for the 2019 season during the team’s preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two nights ago? It’s hard to say. Vance McDonald understandably did not participate in the game. Xavier Grimble did, but he was not targeted.
Among the talks of camp was Christian Scotland-Williamson, the English rugby player who came onto the roster via the International Player Pathway program last season. He had been showing encouraging growth in his second offseason on the team, but a hamstring injury took him out of action early on in the game.
That left room for more opportunities for rookie fifth-round draft pick Zach Gentry, the 6’8” tight end out of Michigan. Gentry was recruited by the Wolverines to play quarterback, but was asked to convert to tight end during his rookie season, and he started to be a meaningful contributor over the final two years.
Gentry was targeted just three times in the game (the Steelers only attempted 30 passes between three quarterbacks as a team, to be fair, and nobody had more than six targets). He caught all three, though only for eight yards, but he got the most out of them, including a nice three-year touchdown from Mason Rudolph in which he played the scramble drill well.
Rudolph had a pretty clean pocket on the play, but wasn’t seeing anybody open. He held the ball for an extended period of time, and as he rolled to his left, Gentry followed, providing him a big target. Rudolph put the ball up high, where only his big target could go up and get it—and he did.
“It definitely gives you more of an option”, he said of how his height influenced that play, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He probably felt more comfortable putting it high for me”.
While he was a draft pick, Gentry is by no means guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster, even if he proves to be the third-best tight end on the team. If he is still not playing at a level in which they have enough comfort, the Steelers are likely to acquire another player from the outside, either via trade or cuts.
“I’m making sure I’m taking steps in that direction every day”, Gentry said about putting himself in a position to make the team by gaining the confidence of the coaching staff. He called it a “daily progression”, and noted that a decision won’t be made until the end of the preseason.
So far, his immediate competition has not been overwhelming. Trevor Wood has not been much of a factor to date. Kevin Rader is more of a blocker, and he showed that when he fumbled the ball late in Friday’s game.
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said that he was “excited about the young tight ends, but they are all in growth and development”. The question is how quickly Gentry can grow. Skying a couple of touchdown passes might buy him some additional time, though.