It’s been well over a decade since the Pittsburgh Steelers last made their serious investment in a tight end through the draft. By next year though, they may have no choice but to do it again.
The NFL has set a $175 million salary floor next season. Maybe it comes in higher than that, hopefully it does, but in a best-case scenario, the cap will stay flat. Dave Bryan outlined what that means for the Steelers. Not only will it be difficult to sign their free agents, guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster,Matt Feiler, Mike Hilton, but in order to do so, or even just be cap compliant with their basic roster, there will be cap causalities.
Two obvious names on that list are TEs Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron. McDonald will be 31 in June next year, is coming off a terrible season, and has well-known durability concerns. Ebron is coming off a tough 2019 with Indy, has his own injury history, and Kevin Colbert’s track record of recent free agents have often been one-and-done: Jon Bostic, Morgan Burnett, Donte Moncrief, Mark Barron.
So it’s possible the team has to move on from both players in the offseason. Without money to spend in free agency and no up-and-coming tight end currently on the roster, unless you have all the faith in Zach Gentry, the only place to go is the draft.
The last time Pittsburgh took a tight end in the first three rounds of the draft was Matt Spaeth in 2007. An absurdly long time for a team committed to building through the draft. Sure, Heath Miller was their cornerstone for a long time but he’s been retired for five years. That excuse doesn’t fly anymore. Post-Miller, the team’s cycled through free agents and trades to varying degrees of success. The McDonald trade was a good one considering the team gave up almost nothing for him, Ladarius Green was a disaster, Nick Vannett offered little, and the jury’s out on Ebron.
But with the cap situation, they won’t be able to go to that well in 2021. Drafting one is their only avenue.
There’s some good news on that front. 2020’s tight end class was miserable but in June, PFF’s Mike Renner wrote this article entitled, “2021 NFL Draft: The tight end class is shaping up to be far better than the 2020 group.”
Renner says it’s poised to be highlighted by two prospects. Florida’s Kyle Pitts and Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth.
“Watching both, you can tell very quickly that they’re just different from the masses at the position. They’re both young and athletic, and you should expect both of them to hear their names called in the first round next spring.”
Pitts is listed at 6’6, 239 pounds and broke out for the Gators in 2019. He caught 54 passes for 649 yards and five touchdowns. Freiermuth produced from his freshman year and in his two years in Happy Valley, has hauled in 69 receptions for 875 yards and 15 touchdowns, earning a “Baby Gronk” nickname along the way. Other names make sense include Central Michigan’s Tony Poljan (who’s currently transferring), BYU’s Matt Bushman and Michigan’s Nick Eubanks.
Going through the draft comes with its own pitfalls. The player you want has to be available, Pitts and Freiermuth will be juniors this year with no guarantee they declare, rookie tight ends have a notoriously tough transition to the NFL, not to mention we have no idea what the college football landscape will look like this fall.
Cutting McDonald and Ebron and drafting a tight end isn’t ideal. But if you’re looking for ideal in the pandemic ridden hell that is 2020, you’ll be searching a long time.