Want = a position the team could improve with a good draft pick.
Important Want = should improve rather than could.
Need = a missing starter.
This series will look at each position to evaluate the level of want and some of the prospects who might be available in those early rounds.
- Wants, Needs and Prospects at Offensive Tackle (January 12), Center (January 15), Guard (January 19), and Running Back (January 16)
I desperately want to start this with an ode to the virtues of this most versatile position. To wax lyrical, and engage in verbal raptures over the benefits and versatility of such a deep class that even the Steelers front office is bound to get a good one. Instead I have to say this: Here we go again.
Steeler Nation has begged the team for years to spend serious draft capital on this position. There’s even a particularly astute pundit on this very site, with initials that work for our northernmost state and a problem with trains, who’s pulled out handfuls of hair over the issue. Will this year be the year?
In a word: no. The need and the talent aren’t going to match up.
Yes, the contracts for both Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron expire after 2021, and cap concerns may dictate an early release for one or both. $5.2 and $5.5 Million, respectively, is a lot to pay given the team’s cap concerns. But there’s really only one prospect who’d fit the Steelers bill – Pat Freiermuth from Penn State – and he seems fated for a draft pick in the early 2nd, between the Steelers picks at 1:24 and 2:23. And as for the rest of this class, well…
Let’s do this right and start with the current roster.
- Vance McDonald, 6’4”, 267 lbs., has quietly become one of those all purpose TE’s who make everyone else seem better, and whose absence coincides with sudden downturns for the rest of the offense. He had a down year in 2020 but is still in the prime of a TE’s career (turns 31 in June), and he has the rare distinction of being able to run, catch, and block without pausing to spit out his gum. The 2021 contract is a concern ($5.2 Million in salary with $2.7 Million more in dead money that has already been paid); enough so that Dave Bryan’s recent “Keep or Cut?” article sees him as a likely cap casualty. OTOH, that salary is well in line with the fair market value for TE’s at his level.
- Eric Ebron, the 10th pick overall in 2014, became one of Big Ben’s favorite targets in 2020. At 6’4” and 253 lbs., he’s still not much as a blocker and he has many more drops than you want from any Tight End, but those are offset by unique, mismatch athleticism that gets him open, and a bright, bubbly, infectious personality. His 2021 salary will be $5.5 Million with $2.5 Million more in dead money. Ebron will be 28 during the next season, and will be a free agent for 2022.
- Zach Gentry, sometimes known to disappointed draftniks as Lurch, is a 6’8”, 265 lb. draft pick from Round 5 in 2019. He didn’t play or show much in his rookie year, and was buried behind Ebron and McDonald in 2020 until he suffered a bad knee injury in mid-November of 2020. A former QB with some promise as a mismatch receiver, but shows no signed of ever developing as an inline blocker.
- Kevin Rader, 6’4” and 250 lbs., was a 2018 UDFA for the Packers who’s been on the Steelers’ practice squad since 2019. He played a few emergency snaps in 2020 and left the impression of a decent blocker who can contribute on special teams. Nice depth with a limited ceiling.
Bottom line: the Steelers will have a good, albeit full-retail price unit for 2021 unless they cut someone. Then they will face a crisis at the position in 2022 unless they sign an extension for one of the two starters, and/or one of the backups makes a surprise breakthrough. Thus it makes a lot of sense for the team to invest in a boom-or-bust developmental prospect in the 2021 draft. That spells Day 3 if such a player is available, and yet more hair loss for Steeler Nation regardless.
Here are the players to watch as they go off the board without getting picked by the Steelers. [Argh.]
CAUTIONARY NOTE & REQUEST: It seems like every year we see a TE who’s been written off as “just a blocker” make a huge leap up the board when he shows a surprisingly good SPARQ score. Those are the ones to target, and it hasn’t happened yet. Please drop a note in the Comments if you have any suggestions for the 2021 prospect who’d fit that description. Claim your precedence now!
THE TOP TWO
- TE Pat Freiermuth, Penn St. (Junior). 6’5”, 250 lbs. A well rounded Tight End who can block, run, catch, and bully. What a pleasure to say those words about someone coming out of college! Penn State called him “Baby Gronk,” but could it be more fair to call him “Baby Heeeeath”? Lost the second half of 2020 to a shoulder injury that required surgery, which may also limit his Spring practice run, but he should be ready to play at full strength in his rookie season. This goes to Wes Cantliffe’s gif-supported Depot scouting report from January. ROUND 1-2 GRADE (FOR PITTSBURGH)
- TE Kyle Pitts, Florida. (Junior). 6’5”, 240 lbs. Everyone has him tagged to go in the Top 10-15 picks, but how would he fit in Pittsburgh? The team is chock full of WR’s, including the goliath sized Chase Claypool, and has a Move TE in Eric Ebron. That lack of fit earns a full one-round discount on this Steelers-specific board; especially since the team doesn’t seem to prioritize TE’s as much as the fan base anyway. Yes, Pitts reportedly has a blocker’s mentality. So yes, you can argue that all he really needs is [a lot] more sand in his pants to become what we all want. But is that enough to justify a higher grade for this particular roster? ROUND 2 GRADE (FOR PITTSBURGH)
- TE Brevin Jordan, Miami. (Junior). 6’3”, 245 lbs. He profiles as an oversized WR, but is both more and less than that. More because he really likes to block even if he has size limitations and isn’t particularly good at it. “Less” because of those limitations, and the fact that he’s never really been asked to run routes. For all that, he is a SPARQ-y young man, he has the native talent to improve across the board, and he’s been on an upward arc. The downgrades come because he needs to, and the process will no doubt take a few years, Devin Jackson’s gif-supported January scouting report has little good to say about the blocking, much less about the catching technique, but still views him as the TE3 of the class. ROUND 3-4 GRADE
- TE Hunter Long, Boston Coll. (RS Junior). 6’5”, 253 lbs. He can catch; he can run; he can block; and he’s smart. But he isn’t a mismatch athlete. The sort of player who could vault into fringe-1st consideration if he kills the Combine, and won’t get out of Round 5 no matter what. ROUND 3-5 GRADE
- TE Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame. (RS Sophomore). 6’4”, 248 lbs. Departing early because Freshman phenom Michael Mayer would have crippled his snap count, Tremble is a classic TE project who can run, catch, and block but all at moderate levels. Played mostly as a Fullback and H-back in 2020, but ran routes and succeeded as a receiver in 2019. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
- TE Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio St. (Junior). 6’5”, 253 lbs. Ohio State recruits top notch athletes and Ruckert qualifies for that label. He isn’t a freaky athlete by NFL standards, but he’s definitely a good one. That, combined with a well rounded skill set, should earn him some serious looks by the Steelers brass. He checks all the boxes: hands, size, speed, and even blocking ability. The cautions come from a lack of measurable production, and the history of Ohio State TE’s facing problems at the next level. ROUND 4-5 GRADE
- TE Nick Eubanks, Michigan. (RS Senior). 6’3”, 245 lbs. Will be 24 on draft day. He looks the part and has the mismatch athleticism you look for, but the blocking just isn’t there yet, and may never get there because of his size. He’s also a little older because he could never quite break through during the normal 4-year career. A good bet from the SPARQ perspective, but the film is lacking. ROUND 4-6 GRADE
- TE Tre’ McKitty, Georgia. (Senior). 6’5”, 241 lbs. A good Move TE who may be an even better pro because he’s shown the willingness to block. But he is very undersized to be a blocker in the NFL, he’s never shined at that job, and thus one has to doubt whether willingness alone is going to be enough. Here is a brief scouting profile from November. ROUND 4-7 GRADE
- TE Kylen Granson, SMU. (Senior). 6’3”, 235 lbs. Another prospect who straddles the elusive line between oversized WR and undersized TE. Hard to see the fit, though he might be an extraordinary fullback/H-back if you read between the lines of Tom Mead’s gif-supported January scouting report. He does seem to love blocking even if he lacks the size to succeed in that capacity at an NFL level. This goes to a nice January Draft Wire interview that followed his decision to play in the Senior Bowl. ROUND 5-7 GRADE
- TE Kenny Yeboah, Ole Miss. (RS Senor). 6’5”, 230 lbs. He deserves a higher grade for teams focused on a Move TE, but Pittsburgh does not have that focus, and the numbers cannot be ignored for this team-specific board. Yeboah is about the same size as WR Chase Claypool. That is an issue. ROUND 4-7 GRADE
- TE Cary Angeline, NC State. (RS Senor). 6’7”, 250 lbs. The much abused Zach Gentry may actually be one of the better pro comps. Angeline has wonderful size and very good hands as a receiver, but I’ve yet to see a report that extols his blocking prowess and he isn’t built for the job. ROUND 5-7 GRADE
- TE Tony Poljan, Virginia. (RS Senor). 6’7”, 225 lbs. Lurch Returns. Poljan follows in Gentry’s footsteps even down to being a recently converted QB. Nice hands. Nice speed. Blocking… “Wait, I’m supposed to block too?” I’ve never met the young man and I’m sure that’s unfair, so please write the snark off to Post Draft Disappointment Disorder. ROUND 6-7 GRADE
THE TRAGIC ONE
- TE Peyton Hendershot, Indiana. (RS Junior). 6’4”, 250 lbs. I hate writing summaries like this one. This prospect would have Steeler Nation pounding the table for his multifaceted talents in the 2-3 range, but it Ain’t Gonna Happen because of a very serious February, 2020 incident in which he allegedly broke into a former girlfriend’s home, struck her down, and then busted the place up. A bad scene all the way around. Young and stupid is one thing, and I am a big proponent of second chances, but we amateur scouts have no access to the sort of information that might make this young man draftable despite that level of smoke.
It isn’t a great year for Tight Ends. There are only two players who even might be considered in the first two rounds, and two more in the 3-5 range. Everyone else projects as a Day 3 pick with the best of the bunch looking like oversized WR’s.
We need you Steeler Nation! Send us the name of that “only a blocker” who’s going to kill the not-going-to-happen Combine! Those of us who pine for the Heir to Miller need you. And the Train Man needs his hair.