The Pittsburgh Steelers only have four true tight ends on their current 90-man roster, but there’s no guarantee that more than two of them actually make it into the season on the 53. Those top two would be Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, who have never spent any time, unless injured, anywhere but the active roster.
The other two tight ends vying for a roster spot are Kevin Rader, who has been with the organization for going on four years now, and Jace Sternberger, a veteran who was on the practice squad a year ago. But the presences of Derek Watt at fullback and rookie Connor Heyward as an H-back make carrying both of them plus three tight ends an uncertain prospect.
Rader isn’t taking anything for granted. He talked to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the amount of work that he has put into his game this offseason, with a particular focus on rounding out his skill set.
“I envision myself as a complete tight end, but in the past I have been viewed as strictly as a blocking tight end and special teams guy. I am trying to change that mold to be more versatile and be used more in the offense”, he told Adamski. “I have been working my (butt) off this offseason, really, on route-running and catching more footballs than I probably have in my entire life. And I think it’s paying off right now”.
A Youngstown State product, Rader has opened some eyes during preseasons in years past with his potential as a blocker, and when given the opportunity, he has also shown an ability to be an asset as a special teams contributor.
But he understandably hasn’t gotten many chances to field the ball. He did appear to show growth in this area during training camp last year, according to Alex Kozora, and if he continues to put work into it and has made further strides, it will only strengthen his case.
Rader has spent seven games on the active roster in the past, including six last season, after Eric Ebron suffered a season-ending injury. He only logged 36 offensive snaps in 2021; he also wasn’t used much more on special teams, just 37 snaps.
But with Ebron no longer on the roster, there is clearly an opening for a third tight end. Is that already earmarked for Heyward, one way or another, at Rader’s expense? It’s quite possible. Realistically, the front office is going to understand that Rader will almost undoubtedly be available to be signed to the practice squad, after all, and he wouldn’t see the field much either way behind Freiermuth and Gentry.