With the 55th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth and the Steelers’ other eight picks could be packaged up into one quick, overall grade. But why not take a detailed look at each individual pick from a number of different viewpoints, before determining a final grade for the player, and later on the entire class?
I designed this exercise to look at and give letter grades based on six specific ways to view the pick (listed below), before taking all that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Team Need: Does the player fill a weaker spot on the roster?
Team Fit: Does this player and his skillset fit what the team likes to do offensively and defensively?
Immediate Contributor: Will the player be able to play a big role as a rookie?
Long-Term Contributor: Will the player be a significant part of the team’s future in some capacity?
Pick Value: Did the team reach on this player? Did they pick up a steal who should have gone earlier?
Other Options: Who were the other players still available at that selection, both overall and at that specific position?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Each factor doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made. For example, teams expect immediate contributions from a first round selection, while a seventh-rounder is fortunate to just make the roster.
Some factors do, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to. Steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 2, Pick 23: Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
TEAM NEED: A
Pittsburgh isn’t destitute at tight end. But the position was definitely a need in the immediate, and the long-term. In the immediate, Pittsburgh was desperate for a competent backup tight end, something absent from the roster following the retirement of Vance McDonald. Long-term, Pittsburgh needed a consistent, stable presence with more upside than a serviceable starter, and that would stick around longer than a season or two. That’s been missing since the days of prime Heath Miller, in the early 2010’s.
Freiermuth fills both of those voids. He is a better TE2 option than the rest of the roster, even if you combined all the best skills of those players. His more traditional, old-school way of playing will fill the holes in Eric Ebron’s game as a pure receiving threat. Long-term, Freiermuth brings the upside that the Steelers can envision starting for them well beyond his rookie contract, and eliminates the need for a starter from the draft board moving forward.
TEAM FIT: A+
It seems lazy to compare Freiermuth, the Steelers’ new long-term tight end, to the team’s most recent one, Heath Miller. But sometimes the fit is really that simple. Freiermuth is a capable receiver, lacking the playmaking ceiling of the game’s elite or even Ebron, but a reliable set of hands who is definitely capable of making some big plays. He is also able to be used as a blocker, as much or more than every starting tight end the team has employed since Heath retired. There may be better tight ends for which to compare Freiermuth, but in terms of his fit and what he can bring to the Steelers on-field, Miller is an excellent model. That type of tight end is exactly the type the Steelers thrive with. So this fit is a great one.
IMMEDIATE CONTRIBUTOR: B-
You have to balance the expectation that Freiermuth sees a lot of reps as a blocker with the reality that he is going to be playing second fiddle at his position to Ebron as a receiver, and be buried in line for targets behind the extensive group of receivers, and first-round running back Najee Harris.
Freiermuth will be a contributor in 2021. That is guaranteed. But he isn’t going to be a key figure and pivotal figure on the offense as a rookie, so long as Ebron is around. His grade gets boosted because of the ability he brings as the team’s best blocking tight end, but isn’t getting higher than this based on how low he sits in the pecking order of receiving options for the Steelers.
LONG-TERM CONTRIBUTOR: A+
Picking Freiermuth isn’t about him being an immediate contributor. It’s all about addressing the long-term need. There is nothing in the situation that indicates Freiermuth will be anything but a mainstay on the Steeler offense for close to a decade to come. He spends 2021 behind Ebron as a receiver but leading the way as a blocker, and then takes over every-snap, No. 1 duties at tight end beginning his second year. Like Miller, his ceiling might be around 70 catches, 700 yards. But that combined with strong blocking is all the Steelers need out of their top tight end to keep the offense working at top speed.
PICK VALUE: A
Looking purely at the range where Freiermuth was selected, Pittsburgh received good value on its selection. His value was placed squarely in the second round, and getting him in the back half of it, especially in a class with little top-end talent, was a great get for the team. Drafting a tight end in the second round means you need to get a starter for the pick to be worth it. Given his play style, every sign points to that being the outcome.
OTHER OPTIONS: D
Here’s the rub: Tight end was absolutely a need for Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t anywhere close to one of the biggest ones. Eric Ebron gave the team a solid starter for 2021, and Day 3 is full of players more than capable of playing as the TE2 and upgrading that spot from Zach Gentry. Meanwhile to that point, Pittsburgh had not addressed needs at center and tackle on one of the league’s worst offensive lines, and cornerback was perilously thin with Justin Layne and James Pierre competing to be the No. 3.
Freiermuth filled a need, but other players who filled bigger ones were sitting there. The most egregious pass was on Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, a player most did not think the Steelers would have a chance at at 55th overall. That is the plug-and-play starter the team needed to have to anchor the line. Jalen Mayfield offered upside as a long-term starter at tackle, and Aaron Robinson would have been an excellent selection as a physical corner to replace much of what was lost in Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton.
The Steelers had no chance of selecting Freiermuth with their third-rounder. So if he was a player they had to get, they went for him at the right spot. And at his position, he was the clear-cut best player the Steelers could have taken. Hunter Long may have rivaled him slightly, but not enough to warrant consideration. But with a starter on the roster and much more glaring needs to address (and high-value players sliding to them at the pick), Pittsburgh was better off addressing somewhere else in the second round.
OVERALL GRADE: C
This is a case where I like the player selected and envision long-term success for him with the franchise, but do not like the pick. Freiermuth is a great fit for the Steelers. If anyone from this draft class is a safe bet to see a second contract with the team, it’s him. Even moreso than Najee Harris. He is going to step in his second year and be the stability at starter the team has lacked at that position since Heath Miller’s retirement.
But tight end wasn’t an offense-killing weakness last season. The line was. And defensively, cornerback went from a major strength to a liability (behind starters Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, who are a strong pairing, though Haden is approaching his final seasons). When talent you’re not supposed to have a chance to draft falls to you at the 55th pick, you can’t bypass a long-term starter at three of your four weakest positions for somebody who isn’t going to be the top option until his second season. Not if this is supposed to be your final run at a Super Bowl with ben Roethlisberger at QB.