For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games.
Moving along with the offense by reviewing the tight ends.
Pat Freiermuth: Read his Penn State scouting report and that’s the guy the Steelers saw at Heinz Field this summer. Great hands. Tough. A serviceable blocker. And in diverging from that report slightly, a bit better of an athlete than given credit for. The word players and coaches have used with him is “smooth” and efficient.” His routes, his weight transfer, ability to run nuanced routes and create some space even if his physical tools are average.
As our stats showed, Freiermuth had the highest catch percentage of any Steeler we’ve tracked in camp with a minimum of 20 targets. 21 grabs on 24 targets, far and away first place on this list, and his final target of camp was incomplete, caught but unable to get both feet inbounds. He didn’t benefit from easy, checkdown throws or grabs in the flat either. There were several downfield, combat catches that he simply made look easy. Already, I’d argue Freiermuth has the second best hands of anyone on this team, only behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, and that may change once we see more of Freiermuth throughout the season.
As a blocker, he’s in a better place than a lot of rookies. He’s comfortable in his three-point stance, shows effort, and his finish improved during camp at the urging of coaches. It still needs to be better but that consistency and strength at the point of attack will come with time. Freiermuth, of course, was excellent in last night’s game, making two great grabs high over his head. As Mike Tomlin said, if you saw it in camp, it’s just more of the same. Very good camp from the Steelers’ second round pick.
Camp Grade: A-
Kevin Rader: Rader got off to a hot start to camp, showing much improved hands while soaking up plenty of reps thanks to Ebron missing a chunk of time. Rader’s size is just average to slightly above but he plays with plus power and tremendous leg drive, moving people in the run game and on special teams.
His hands faded at the end, dropping passes similarly as he did in 2019, though I have him down for just two official drops in team session this year. Rader finished camp catching 14 passes on 18 targets for a little over 100 yards and a pair of scores.
He’s the definition of a guy who has reached his ceiling. Now, he’s trying to find a niche role as a classic #3 tight end. His play has warranted that spot but he’s still battling Gentry. That one could be decided against the Carolina Panthers.
Camp Grade: B
Zach Gentry: Did Zach Gentry improve this year? Absolutely. Is it enough to make the roster? A much more open question. To be fair, we’ve barely seen Gentry since his rookie year in 2019 when he was a really raw QB-turned-TE trying to figure the NFL out. Predictably, he struggled. But without a camp we could attend, no preseason, and a season-ending knee injury, Gentry was an afterthought last season.
That makes 2021 make or break. And he’s improved. As a receiver, he’s an impressive above-the-rim player, using his height and size to his benefit more than he did as a rookie. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of those moments in camps. Much less so in games.
With his frame, he’s expected to be a plus blocker but in many ways, he’s too tall who struggles with pad level and getting low against EDGE players three or four inches shorter than him. It’s like playing a 6’8 guy at guard – he’s too tall for his own good. Gentry is decent in a line with some build-up speed but turns so slowly I’d never let him travel the Suez Canal. That part is unlikely to improve in his career.
Before last night, he felt firmly outside-looking-in on the 53 man roster. But rolling through the Lions tape, Gentry consistently played ahead of Kevin Rader and did a bang-up job as a pass blocker, using his size and length to seal pass rushers. Maybe it’s still a battle for those two guys though Rader is still the better blocker and special teamer. Gentry should stick on this roster, even if that means practice squad, but his ceiling is that of a #3 type of tight end clawing to make the roster and catch a goal line seam pass if he ever sees the field.
I’m really trying to figure out how this guy didn’t have a basketball career. Feels like that should’ve been his path.
Camp Grade: B-
Eric Ebron: Ebron missed the early portion of camp with an elbow injury, causing him to miss some of the most physical parts of camp. Backs on ‘backers and some of the TE/LB run-blocking drills. His camp was relatively quiet until the very end, catching a couple balls downfield for big gainers. He caught just six passes in team drills but they went for 114 yards, an average of exactly 19 yards per grab.
In preseason action, Ebron has certainly shown effort as a run blocker after evidently seeing the light this offseason. The results have been mixed though they have been better so he deserves credit for that.
At the risk of venturing into more speculatory territory, Ebron’s had a reputation of not being a great teammate or locker room favorite. Who knows what happened in his time with Detroit and Indy but from my outsider view, he seems like a charismatic, likeable guy who hangs out with everyone. We noted the one day he was chilling on the sideline with the defense, joking around with Cam Heyward, Alex Highsmith, and Mike Tomlin. Ebron has a big personality and I mean that in a good way. An energy-bringer for this team, at least when times are good. That’s all beyond an evaluation or grade but something I’ve noticed considering this is the first camp I’ve gotten to watch him in.
28 years old and an NFL veteran (he came into the league at 21), Ebron by and large is who he is with only slight changes on the margins. But that’s not all bad, considering he’s been a productive player for the bulk of his career.
Camp Grade: C+
Marcus Baugh: Baugh was signed early into camp as Dax Raymond’s injury replacement, the first camp add of the summer. He brought a tiny bit of NFL experience so he didn’t look as lost as some rookie bouncing around camps to begin his career. Baugh showed decent hands with body control and made a couple of sideline grabs. We have him down for six catches and 71 yards, a respectable 11.8 yard average which is actually pretty good for training camp tight ends where numbers tend to skew down a bit.
There seemed to be some miscommunication involving him. He was the king of passes thrown at his feet and more than half of his targets fell incomplete. Of anyone in camp, he and Najee Harris were the only two players to have a sub-50% catch rate. That’s the only time those two will be lumped in the same sentence.
As a blocker, he seemed below average but not absolutely horrible.
There’s really no path to him making the 53 and his practice squad chances are slim. But frankly, I expected a worse showing than what he did. It was an ok summer. Ask me about him two years from now though and I’ll forget everything about him.
Camp Grade: C-
Dax Raymond: Hurt early in camp at the end of a two-minute drill, barreling into the sidelines. Second time he’s been waived/injured by the Steelers. They released him with an injury settlement last week. He caught two passes for 21 yards and zero touchdowns.
We’ll always have early August, Dax.
Camp Grade: Incomplete