For the rest of the preseason, we’ll give a recap, position-by-position, player-by-player of what I saw during the 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers training camp and preseason games. This list is based off the 16 public camp practices and the preseason games I’ve watched up until this point and is based solely off their performance then and does not necessarily represent my feelings for the players overall or during the regular season.
With that in mind, let’s keep going with the tight ends.
Connor Heyward: All the talk when Heyward was drafted focused around big brother Cam. One summer in and there aren’t many focused on the human interest story anymore. They’re focused on the quality player Heyward might be. He’s certainly a different body type and style from what’s the norm, making him difficult to judge compared to the rest of the group. He’s quicker and snaps at the top of his route better than the others but of course he does. He’s smaller. He struggles as an in-line blocker because of course he does. He’s smaller.
Heyward was truly used as a tight end throughout the summer. That’s the position group he worked with and the position he played during camp. Pittsburgh understands his size limitations and used him in a two-point/Y-off stance quite a bit but he did receive a fair amount of in-line work. The results there weren’t pretty and he struggled to sustain blocks. Late in camp with FB Derek Watt injured, Heyward received a handful of reps as a fullback but overall, he’s a tight end. Heyward and Watt play two different positions.
Heyward had a tale of two camps. The first half was a bit underwhelming, an inefficient player who dropped too many and mainly worked underneath. But he caught fire down the stretch, catching his final 14 targets and making plays down the seam. Overall, Heyward is a natural catcher of the football with soft hands and a good radius to make up for his lack of size. He made more difficult combat catches down the stretch and runs solid routes, performing especially well in the opener against Seattle.
He finished camp tied for the second-most targets and had the second-most receptions, though he averaged barely more than five yards per reception. A bit of that can be blamed on seven shots and he caught four total touchdowns in camp.
Though listed as a tight end, it’s unfair to compare him to Freiermuth, Gentry, or the rest of the group. He’s a different player who wins and loses in different ways. But he’s an interesting fit in Canada’s offense with his versatility and ability to line all over the field, which he regularly did during the summer. Pittsburgh will be a boot/naked-heavy offense and Heyward could certainly benefit as the first option in the flat. Heyward is a player from a different era, a new-age Larry Centers or John L. Williams, who would’ve thrived in the 80s or early 90s. But there’s a role and niche for him along with being a strong special teams, which he’s shown flashes of being in preseason action.
Camp Grade: B+
Pat Freiermuth: It was a quiet first half of Freiermuth’s camp, suffering a hamstring injury on day two and not returning in full until the second-to-last week of camp. The golden rule is hamstring injuries take about a week longer to fully come back from than you think. But Freiermuth ended camp on a high note, catching thirteen passes over the final four practices and finishing camp with 20 targets. He continued to be his steady and reliable self, catching 80% of his targets. Since 2015, Freiermuth owns two of the three highest catch rates of guys with 20+ targets in camp. Wild.
He makes tough catches underneath and will largely work in the JuJu Smith-Schuster role as his quarterback’s best friend. But this offense seems intent on getting Freiermuth down the middle of the field more often this year, taking advantage of real estate between the numbers previously ignored by Ben Roethlisberger the last two seasons. Freiermuth had a 24-yard catch from Kenny Pickett in Saturday’s win over Jacksonville, equaling his longest reception as a rookie. In camp, he had multiple 15+ yard catches down the seam. Don’t expect him to be Kyle Pitts but his yards per catch should hover around ten instead of the 8.3 it finished at last season.
Though he’s healthy, I haven’t learned a lot about him as an in-line blocker. That’s one area he needed to get better from his rookie season and I’m not sure how well he’s progressed. I’d like to think he’s improved but I haven’t been able to make that determination yet.
Injuries are always frustrating and muddy up my evaluations. But Freiermuth is good to go Week One and should have a key role in this offense. His camp was fine and I can live with that. The biggest piece of encouraging news for him, and potential fantasy owners, is the team’s willingness to run him vertically.
Camp Grade: B
Zach Gentry: If it was disappointing to not learn as much about Freiermuth, Gentry took it to a different level. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Gentry is only 25 and hasn’t played a lot of football but his scouting report is relatively simple and predictable to right. Big, run-blocking tight end. Fin.
But I was hoping to gain more insight into this summer, his first one on solid ground after fighting for his roster yearly prior to this point. Unfortunately, I don’t have much of a takeaway. He did miss a handful of practices and the preseason opener with an unknown injury but he’s fully healthy now. His camp stats are quiet, catching just 11 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He did make an impressive catch down the left seam for a 20-yard grab against Myles Jack early in camp. There’s intrigue in him being more of a vertical/seam runner but his role in this offense remains primarily to block. He did struggle a bit more than expected in backs on ‘backers but he’ll fill his role as the team’s #2 blocking tight end just fine, not to mention their new funny man.
Camp Grade: C
Kevin Rader: Rader is a poor man’s Gentry. Not as big but a good blocker and he does offer more special teams value. He’s strong and scrappy and hunts well on the coverage unit. But he’s football’s version of a AAAA baseball player. Right on the practice squad/53 man roster fringe and unable to fully get over that hump.
Early in camp, his hands looked better than previous summers and he made a couple of impressive grabs over his head, including one 20+ yards downfield in a two-minute drill. But those plays waned and his suspect hands returned, leading camp with four total drops. Last year, he had two and in 2019, he tied for the lead with five. Aside from that one downfield catch, he was an underneath option in the flat and ultimately averaged a paltry five yards per catch. There isn’t much more to be said about Rader that hasn’t already been discussed so we’ll leave it at that. He still has good odds to stick on the practice squad as the team’s #4 tight end.
Camp Grade: C-
Jace Sternberger: A former third round pick, Sternberger was a flier in this year’s camp. He’s a good athlete with burst to separate at the top of his route. He was healthy and available from start to finish and seemed to have a good baseline level of conditioning.
But beyond that, there wasn’t a ton to get excited about. Sternberger’s blocking was average at best and his hands were suspect, dropping too many that hit him in the hands. It wasn’t always evident in team drills, just one official drop (but arguably one or two more) but it happened in 7v7 and even on-air sessions. He simply didn’t catch the ball cleanly or consistently enough for a supposed receiving tight end. He barely caught more than half his targets (13/24) and his play during games was quiet, though he had a nice special teams tackle against Jacksonville. But Rader is the better option as a blocker and special teamer and Sternberger didn’t do enough to stick around.
Camp Grade: C-
Previous Camp Grades