A lot of fans scratched their heads when the Pittsburgh Steelers announced their second pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and it came out as Pat Freiermuth. Not because he wasn’t worth the pick, but because he was a tight end, and not an offensive lineman.
The Steelers’ primary focus on offense this offseason has centered around improving the running game, and particularly improving the blocking to enable the running game to succeed. But as head coach Mike Tomlin continually reminds Freiermuth, he’s part of that equation.
“Every time he makes a big catch, Coach says, ‘that’s good, can you block?’”, general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters earlier today, from video of his media availability before practice on the team’s website. “It’s really kind of funny the way he does it”.
Of course, the reason that the team valued Freiermuth so highly is precisely because of the fact that he is a tight end who is capable of being both a pass-catcher and a blocker, which is becoming increasingly rare in an era in which most at the position emphasize one over the other. With that said, they’re still appreciating his receiving skills, all the same.
“Pat has flashed some really good catching ability”, Colbert said, though he reminded us of the context. “I always talk about when the offense looks good, maybe your defense just isn’t any good, and vice versa. So until we get into preseason games, I try not to get too excited, albeit acknowledging some special plays that the young folks are making that we didn’t anticipate”.
The Steelers prioritized the tight end position this offseason after Vance McDonald retired following the 2020 season. While they still have Eric Ebron under contract for one more season, they see Freiermuth as the future of that position on the roster.
In fact, he is the first tight end that they have drafted within the first four rounds since 2007, when they used a third-round pick on Matt Spaeth. They have invested via trade and free agency—the aforementioned Ebron and McDonald, as well as a brief dalliance with Ladarius Green—but have not done so through the draft.
While Freiermuth is flashing catching ability, it does remain to be seen exactly what kind of role he will play in the offense this season, and that’s partly driven by the fact that we have a lot to learn about who Matt Canada is going to be as the Steelers’ new offensive coordinator.
Presumably, they drafted him that early to get on the field and play. But how many two-tight end sets will they employ? How much time might Freiermuth see as the lone tight end on the field? In what contexts will he be deployed? The answers to those questions are yet to be determined, but they’ll start coming when the pads come on.