It has been a long time since the Pittsburgh Steelers had a number three tight end that they evidently considered viable, and even that comes with something of a caveat. That would be back in Jesse James’ rookie year, and he spent the first half of the year as a healthy scratch before injuries forced him to dress.
Then Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were gone. They tried out Ladarius Green, then they got Vance McDonald. Even with McDonald coupled with Eric Ebron last year, there was still no number three they felt like dressing. This could finally change in 2021.
McDonald has retired, but Ebron is back, and they added Pat Freiermuth in the second round. But training camp is showing that a couple of the young tight ends who have been in the system for a couple of years may have matured to the point of viability, such as 2019 fifth-round pick Zach Gentry.
“He’s had great progress”, head coach Mike Tomlin said of the Michigan product following the final training camp practice. “We’re not ready to paint with a broad brush in terms of dividing the labor up or identifying roles, but he’s done a nice job, and he’s particularly utilized his skillset that’s a little bit different than others in the room. Zach is 6’8”, 280-plus, and so it’s reasonable to expect some of those skills to turn up in line-of-scrimmage play and blocking in the run game, and it has”.
Recruited originally as a quarterback, Gentry converted to tight end in college, so it was understood when he was drafted that he would be a project. He spent most of his first two seasons as a healthy scratch, not even logging 100 total snaps, but he may now, in year three, be ready to be a contributor.
If not him, then Kevin Rader seems ready to provide an alternative. A practice squad player, he may be the most NFL-ready blocker on the roster right now, and he has shown some hands in training camp this time around.
Of course, the issue is how often you’re going to get your number three tight end on the field. It was such a non-question in recent years that they only bothered dressing two of them on game day, relying instead upon an extra lineman for assistance.
Still, we are waiting to see this progress show up more in the preseason games. There are two more weeks for either Gentry or Rader to really make some plays and flash, to separate himself from the other and stake his claim on a spot on the 53-man roster.