By all accounts and most measurements, Pat Freiermuth had a solid rookie season. Not a perfect one, there’s always room for improvement, but given the difficult jump rookie tight ends make, Freiermuth’s year was just about everything you could ask for.
So what could he do for an encore performance? How about set the Steelers’ record for most receptions by a tight end. He doesn’t have far to go.
As you might guess, the current record holder is Heath Miller, the ultimate security blanket who snagged 76 passes in 2009, one of his two Pro Bowl seasons. Here are the top five leaders in franchise history.
Most Receptions By Steelers’ Tight End, Team History
1. Heath Miller – 76 (2009)
2. Heath Miller – 71 (2012)
3. Heath Miller – 66 (2014)
4. Eric Green – 63 (1993)
5. Elbie Nickel – 62 (1953)
Benefitting from 16-game seasons and a more modern NFL passing game, Miller claims the top three spots on the list. No surprise there; if anything, it’s surprising he doesn’t occupy all five spots. Green was a tremendous athlete out of Liberty who shined brightly his few seasons in Pittsburgh, while Nickel is one of the greatest pre-Noll era players who finished second in the entire league in receptions that year (one behind Pete Pihos).
Freiermuth finished his rookie year with 60 receptions, already the most by a Steelers’ first-year tight end. He did that despite not being the #1 out of the gate, splitting time with Eric Ebron early in the year, missing one game entirely, and playing just 62% of the offense’s snaps. He’ll hit the ground running this year around, now much more comfortable in his second-year and firmly established as the team’s starting tight end. Like last year, he should function as the team’s security blanket, the new JuJu Smith-Schuster, running a lot of option and over-the-ball routes that won’t lead to a high yards per catch but will jack up the reception number.
All Freiermuth needs to do is average 4.6 catches per game to break Miller’s mark. From Weeks 6-17 last year, when he saw regular playing time, he averaged 4.9 grabs. Extrapolate that out over a 17-game season and that puts him at 83 receptions for the year, putting him in first place.
Now, there are some factors that could compete against him. The Steelers will do their best to run the ball more this year. With Ben Roethlisberger, it was his show and the Steelers threw – and threw short – a lot. Pittsburgh’s offense could look different this year around. More ground control, more vertical shots, and that could ding Freiermuth’s numbers. There’s also more weapons in town with draft picks George Pickens and Calvin Austin.
Still, given his rookie year success, how smart and sure-handed Freiermuth is coupled with his natural sophomore year growth, it’s likely Freiermuth strongly threatens for that top spot. Miller’s record is more than a decade old, but it may fall in 2022 by Freiermuth, a player who resembles Miller’s game and style.