They say that the tight end is a quarterback’s best friend, and some of them take it literally. Vance McDonald was quick to pounce on the opportunity to grab the locker next to Ben Roethlisberger when first acquired by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017. Having since retired, his locker is now occupied by the team’s latest tight end: Second-round pick Pat Freiermuth.
“My locker’s actually next to him”, the rookie mentioned last week during rookie minicamp, regarding Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ starting quarterback. “It’s pretty cool, just seeing him when I was a young kid, being in the NFL and it was always Ben Roethlisberger. “Now my locker’s right next to him, so it’s pretty cool, and definitely surreal”.
The tight end has developed into a receiving position that serves a supporting role in the offense. A ‘safety valve’ that the quarterback can throw to when he is under pressure or has no other targets open. A big-bodied player capable of doing the dirty work that the wide receivers sometimes can’t.
Of course, it’s not always that linear. The lines have certainly blurred between a tight end and a wide receiver. Tight ends such as Travis Kelce and now Kyle Pitts represent the receiving aspect of the position far more than the blocking.
Freiermuth is hoping to prove himself to be an ‘old school’ tight end who is capable of delivering on both ends of the spectrum. It’s a label he takes pride in. He talked after the draft about how he doesn’t view himself as one-dimensional.
That has also long been the Steelers’ general profile of the tight end position even as the league has evolved beyond the Mark Brueners of the league. Though even they have made some exceptions, namely with the free agent signings of Ladarius Green and Eric Ebron, and the seventh-round drafting of David Paulson back in 2012.
Roethlisberger would certainly appreciate if Freiermuth could help in the blocking department as well, not only sticking inside in pass protection, but also getting out on the edge or even staying in-line as a blocker as the Steelers try to revitalize as stagnating rushing attack.
Pittsburgh has been long overdue to make a significant draft investment in the tight end position. The last time that they had drafted a tight end in the top four rounds was in 2007 with Matt Spaeth in Round 3. They have twice used fifth-round picks, in 2015 with Jesse James and 2019 with Zach Gentry.
All of their other tight end selections under Mike Tomlin, before Freiermuth, were seventh-round picks. But of course they also had Heath Miller for most of that time, and Spaeth as his number two. So perhaps it wasn’t always necessary.