With the combined departures at wide receiver and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement, not to mention the natural development within the position group, it is reasonable to believe that the tight ends will play a bigger role on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense this season.
It’s not just 2021 second-round draft pick Pat Freiermuth entering his second season after a very promising rookie campaign. It’s also veteran fourth-year tight end Zach Gentry having had the opportunity to establish himself as a regular contributor last season, and where he now builds from that.
Gentry and Freiermuth became fast friends last year, and especially after Eric Ebron’s injury, they began to solidify an encouraging 1-2 punch at tight end. Freiermuth sees the team asking more of Gentry this season—though perhaps more of the same, rather than a wider breadth of responsibilities.
“I think that he’s only evolved his game every single game last year. Every single week, you saw him put more stuff on film that he was comfortable and confident in”, Freiermuth said of Gentry during OTAs last month, via the team’s website. “I think that going into this year he’s going to be asked to do more in his role, and I think that he’s gonna excel in it, because he worked hard this offseason. You can tell in OTAs”.
The Steelers originally drafted Gentry in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft, taking him with the understanding that he would be a developmental project. A former quarterback, he converted to tight end while at Michigan, and by the time he arrived in Pittsburgh, he was still quite raw, particularly as a blocker.
Yet he had been working on his game and growing, largely behind the scenes, for his first two seasons before finally being presented the opportunity to demonstrate his skills, becoming the Steelers’ top blocking tight end in 2021.
Of course, it’s a role in which he still has plenty of more room to grow, but I still find myself interested in seeing how the passing game goes. His targets did tick upward late last season, with 13 of his 23 receptions on the year coming in the final four weeks. He will also forever be the answer to the trivia question of who caught Roethlisberger’s final pass.
But he’s already shown himself to be more than some footnote in a bar game. He was a valued contributor for the Steelers in 2021, and it’s reasonable to foresee him being asked to do more this year, both because of his own growth and because of the developments on offense, with new quarterbacks and new wide receivers who all have to get on the same page.