With the 2022 new league year, the questions will be plenty for quite a while, even as the Pittsburgh Steelers spend cash and cap space and use draft picks in an effort to find answers. We don’t know who the quarterback is going to be yet—even if we have a good idea. How will the offensive line be formulated? How will the secondary develop amid changes, including to the coaching staff? What does Teryl Austin bring to the table—and Brian Flores? What will Matt Canada’s offense look like absent Ben Roethlisberger?
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: Pat Freiermuth will have a 1000-yard receiving season in the near future.
Explanation: Rookie Connor Heyward recently called teammate Pat Freiermuth, entering his second season, an elite tight end, and somebody who could be the best in the game when the time comes. He had 497 receiving yards on 60 receptions as a rookie with seven touchdowns, but it’s more than reasonable to assume that he can be placed in better opportunities for longer receptions and yards after the catch in the future. And he should also see more targets going forward, as well.
Heath Miller had 816 receiving yards on just 101 targets during the 2012 season, the second and final time that he made the Pro Bowl. It’s not unreasonable to envision Freiermuth being targeted an average of about 7.5 targets per game, which would put him in the high 120s in terms of targets over a full season. Miller averaged about 8.1 yards per target in 2012. If Freiermuth can hit that usage rate with a similar usage likeness to Miller’s in 2012, he’ll be over 1000 yards.
That’s just to lay out a reasonable scenario with a familiar goalpost. I’m not trying to compare and contrast Freiermuth and Miller, but I think we all know we’re in a more pass-heavy game than a decade ago, especially in Pittsburgh. It’s very likely that Freiermuth has a target count well into the 100s this year, especially with either a rookie or Mitch Trubisky starting at quarterback.
And it would be virtually impossible for him to be used in such ways, as last season, that so disadvantaged him from picking up yards after the catch. For the most part, he was very reliable last year in picking up what was there. He didn’t lose many yards that were out in front of him. He’ll have more targets down the field and more targets designed for him to be open with momentum, and that should push his YPC over 10 pretty easily—maybe into the 11- or 12-yard range.
While today’s game shouldn’t be compared apples-to-apples to the past, the reality is that Heath Miller didn’t even really approach 1000 yards. 1000-yard seasons for tight ends still aren’t necessarily incredibly common. Of course the Travis Kelces and Mark Andrewses and Rob Gronkowskis and George Kittles of the world can fairly consistently hit that mark, but is Freiermuth really in that group as a receiver?
Last year, only Andrews, Kelce, and rookie first-round pick Kyle Pitts—more or less a glorified wide receiver—reached 1000 yards among tight ends. The year before, it was just Kelce and Darren Waller. In 2019, it was Kelce, Kittle, and Waller. Zach Ertz joined Kelce and Kittle in 2018. In 2017, it was Kelce and Gronkowski. So in the past five seasons, you have a grand total of six tight ends to have recorded at least one 1000-yard season.
And we’re talking about somebody who had under 500 yards last year. Yes, his playing time, target percentage, and usage will be different moving forward, but twice as productive as a year in which he still caught 60 passes and seven touchdowns? Without the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady throwing him the ball? No.