Entering his fourth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a Pittsburgh native, former Pine-Richland High School standout and Youngstown State product Kevin Rader has profiled as a traditional No. 3 tight end, who excels as an in-line blocking tight end while bringing some special teams value to the table.
Now, ahead of a looming training camp battle with 2022 sixth-round pick Connor Heyward for the No. 3 role in the black and gold, Rader is aiming to change the label that’s been placed on him since he landed with the Steelers in January 2019.
In an offense that is expected to open up in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Matt Canada, Rader is aiming to become more of a passing game threat, providing the Steelers with a legitimate option in the middle of the field to try and take pressure off of guys like Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry at the position.
Coaches have praised Rader throughout his time in the black and gold for his blocking and willingness to be coached and do whatever the team needs from him. That’s been more than enough to keep him around for what will be his fourth season. Still, Rader wants more, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski during OTAs in May that he envisions more for himself at the tight end position.
“I envision myself as a complete tight end,” Rader told Adamski, according to original reporting Thursday from the Tribune-Review. “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.”
Coming out of Youngstown State, Rader was a complete tight end, becoming one of the top players at the position in Penguins’ history. Still, one he stepped foot into the league, his blocking stood out, leading to a role on the Steelers’ practice squad before then seeing time in two games — one regular season, one playoff game. Over 54 career offensive snaps, Rader has just two catches for eight yards. Not eye-popping numbers whatsoever.
He has good hands though and is willing to make plays in traffic. In Year 2 under Canada, the tight ends could be used more. Rader told Adamski he’s been working on his route running all offseason in an effort to make more plays in the passing game, which could help him hold off a draft pick like Heyward at the position.
The opportunity is certainly there for Rader, who at this point is an experienced NFL player with more than 100 career snaps on offense and special teams in his career, playing in a career-best six games in 2021, including three straight to close the season against the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens. Against the Chiefs, Rader hauled in one pass for seven yards. Against the Browns, Rader had a career-high three tackles on special teams, turning some heads in the black and gold.
“I saw an opportunity (for playing time) at the end of last year, and now I am going into this year wanting to build off that,” Rader told Adamski, according to original reporting Thursday from the Tribune-Review. “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.”
It will have to continue paying off when it matters most in training camp and the preseason if Rader wants to crack the 53-man roster once again for his hometown team. The opportunity is certainly there.