While we were able to learn quite a bit about several members of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 draft class this past season, one of the few players of that group of players that remains somewhat of mystery to the fan base entering the offseason is tight end Zach Gentry, the team’s fifth-round selection out of Michigan.
Gentry, who many draftniks believed should have stayed in school instead of declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft as an underclassman, spent most of his rookie season on Steelers gameday inactive lists as he dressed for just four games in total and played all of about 50 offensive snaps. In the next few months, we’ll likely get a better idea as to what the Steelers think about Gentry and his immediate future by the way they handle their depth chart at the tight end position between now and the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Steelers enter the offseason facing a big decision when it comes to starting tight end Vance McDonald and his 2019 backup, Nick Vannett, who the team traded for just a few weeks into the regular season. First, the Steelers will need to decide if they want to pick up McDonald’s option for the 2020 season by the start of the new league year in March. They stand to clear $5.6725 million in much-needed salary cap space prior to roster displacement by not picking McDonald’s 2020 option in March. As for Vannett, who caught all of 13 passes for 128 yards in the 13 games that he played for the Steelers this past season, he’s currently scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the new league year in March and it’s unclear if the team will want to re-sign him prior to then.
Gentry effectively ended his 2019 rookie season as No. 3 on the tight end depth chart behind McDonald and Vannett. However, that’s not saying much due to the other tight ends that were carried on the practice squad throughout the season. In short, the decisions the Steelers make in the next two months regarding McDonald and Vannett could tell us what they think about Gentry’s longer-term prospects.
So, did Gentry show any improvement during his limited rookie season playing time? The short answer to that question is yes, but not by much. In the Steelers Week 3, 4 and 6 games against the San Francisco 49ers. Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Chargers, Gentry played 35 total offensive snaps and in those three contests he looked to be in over his head and especially in the 16 running plays he was asked to block during. His two and only run blocking snaps against the 49ers were very forgettable ones with the latter one coming on the late fourth quarter play that running back James Conner fumbled on. You can see those two snaps below and they aren’t pretty.
Gentry’s 13 run blocking snaps that he played against the Bengals in Week 4 also were disappointing as a whole and he only played one running play snap against the Chargers in Week 6. Gentry, however, did finally see the field again in Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills and functioned a little better in his eight total run blocking snaps that he played in that contest. You can see those plays below and while none were spectacular in nature, he showed some bit of improvement in that phase of his game on a few of those plays just the same. He also caught his one and only pass of his rookie season in that game against the Bills and it came on a third-and-3 in the third quarter and resulted in first down. For whatever it’s worth, Pro Football Focus graded Gentry’s run blocking against the Bills out as 68.6 and only backup tackle Zach Banner graded out better in that contest in that category.
When the Steelers unceremoniously dumped backup tight Xavier Grimble early during the 2019 regular season and quickly acquired Vannett via trade in Week 4 to replace him, it was made clear that Gentry’s rookie season would be a redshirt one. If not for McDonald missing two and a half games due to injuries, Gentry wouldn’t have seen as much playing time as he ultimately did.
Did the Steelers ultimately learn enough about Gentry in his roughly 50 offensive snaps played and season-long practice reps to determine what his ceiling as an NFL tight end is? It’s really hard to know the correct answer to that question. Even so, the fact that Gentry entered the NFL as a very raw tight end prospect with the handicap of being a little too big at 6’8″ leads one to wonder still if he’ll ever become more than what former Steelers tight end Jesse James developed into during his four years in Pittsburgh.
Should, however, the Steelers move on from McDonald before the start of the new league year in March and not re-sign Vannett, both of those actions will likely serve as a sign that the team is at least comfortable with having Gentry move forward as their No. 2 tight end for 2020 at the very least. Ultimately, however, when and if the Steelers address the tight end position during the 2020 NFL Draft will be an even clearer sign as to what they view Gentry’s immediate future in Pittsburgh as possibly being.