2023 NFL Draft

Interview: TE Payne Durham Talks Being Connor Heyward’s HS Teammate & Becoming A Well-Rounded TE

After re-signing TE Zach Gentry, the Pittsburgh Steelers look ready to run it back with the same TE room they had last season with Pat Freiermuth serving as the team’s #1, Gentry coming in as the team’s blocking TE in Pittsburgh’s heavier offensive sets, and Connor Heyward mixing in as a TE/H-Back hybrid in the offense.

However, it appears that Pittsburgh is doing its homework on a deep TE draft class this offseason, sending TE Coach Alfredo Roberts to several Pro Days while having meetings with numerous prospects at the Combine and all-star games. Given the depth and talent of the class, it’s not out of the question that Pittsburgh spends a middle round pick on a TE, and one guy that may fit the bill is Purdue TE Payne Durham.

I got to speak with Durham at the Combine and asked him what few things he is nitpicking on film and what he is talking with NFL coaches and scouts about improving specifically before getting to the league so he can make an impact right away as a rotational player or a starter.

“Yeah, just continue to become a better blocker,” Durham said. ‘At Purdue that was my way on the field early, and if it’s that way at the next level, then it suits me well… I’m happy. Just being a better blocker. And then… short space separation. Being a safety valve for the quarterback in the red zone and on third down.”

Having completed the pre-draft profile on Durham recently for Steelers Depot, a couple of knocks that I had on him as a prospect was his lack of strength as a blocker as well as lack of short-area quickness as a route runner and after the catch. Still, Durham shows plenty of want to as a blocker on tape and can continue to grow into his body as he develops into a more well-rounded player.

While doing Durham’s film breakdown, his ability to make combative catches in tight coverage stood out thanks to his size (6’5 5/8”, 253lb) and his leaping ability. I asked Durham about how he has developed as a pass catcher and being able to work with defenders draped on him at the catch point.

“My tight end coach, Coach [Ryan] Wallace, we talked all the time, and I wasn’t allowed to drop passes,” Durham responded. “It was unacceptable. So, that’s something he kind of drilled into me and if the ball is in the air, it’s mine and I’m not let anyone take that away.”

I then asked Durham if he had been in contact with the Steelers at the Combine and if he had any interactions with TE Pat Freiermuth since the two played for Big Ten teams.

“Definitely,” Durham said to me at the Combine. “So, I talked to the Steelers down at the Senior Bowl and then a little bit here as well in an informal meeting. Pat [Freiermuth] is obviously an unbelievable tight end. Watched him in college, and then Connor Hayward, another one of the Steelers tight ends. I went to high school with him, so I know Connor real well. So, I love watching them. I love watching what they do and I’m happy for both of ’em.”

Durham and Heyward went to Peachtree Ridge High School in Suwanee Georgia, sharing the gridiron together for just one season as Durham was mainly a lacrosse player and only went out for football his senior year. I followed up by asking Durham what his thoughts were on Heyward’s rookie season as a former sixth-round pick who managed to make some splash plays as more of a hybrid TE/FB player in Pittsburgh’s offense.

“Connor’s a competitor,” Durham answered. “He’s been that way since high school. Another awesome human being. Someone you like to be around. Very cool to see him with his brother because that’s an awesome family. I just know him, know how hard he’s going to work, and he wanted to prove a lot of people wrong, and he did that.”

While only playing together for a season in high school, it was evident that Durham and Heyward had a good relationship in high school. Knowing this, I asked Durham to give a funny story on his former high school teammate from when they played together at Peachtree Ridge High School.

“We had some basketball feuds back in the day,” Durham said. “Here in school playing basketball and those always got pretty heated and competitive. He was a basketball player, and I was not, so I was always trying to catch up.”

Based on my film breakdown, I see Durham going somewhere early on Day Three of the draft and compared him to Freiermuth, having near-identical size and length and excelling as a security blanket over the middle as well as being a threat in the red zone. He needs to improve his strength and consistency as a blocker but should develop into a solid TE2 at the worst. He could be a player to target as an upgrade over Gentry as a pass catcher, potentially reuniting him with his former high school teammate.

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