Following more than a decade of ignoring the position for most of the draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers have now used two selections in the first three rounds over the past three draft classes on tight ends. After using their second-round pick in 2021 on Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, they added Darnell Washington out of Georgia in the third round on Friday.
That brings their projected tight end room now up to four members, though offensive coordinator Matt Canada acknowledged a bigger role at fullback could be in store for second-year Connor Heyward, who is of a smaller build. Washington, who is amply capable of holding his own on the receiving end, is also a big, physical blocker that can be of benefit to Freiermuth, his offensive coordinator believes.
“Pat’s a different type of tight end and those two guys, Zach [Gentry] and Darnell, are bigger, more blocking guys”, Canada told reporters Friday, via the team’s website. “Zach’s made some plays down the field and can catch the ball, but certainly Pat is more known for that…I would say those are different types of players, but we think we can match them up pretty well”.
While the ability to be a two-way tight end as a pass-catcher and blocker was one of the main qualities the Steelers were attracted to in Freiermuth, he still hasn’t fully developed the blocking part of his game, while he did take a key step forward last season as a receiving threat.
Now with Washington in the mix, and with Gentry returning for at least one more season, the offense has other options to carry out blocking assignments, potentially freeing Freiermuth up more to put a greater emphasis on his pass-catching responsibilities. That could also shape how they deploy him in the formation and open up opportunities to force more mismatches.
Now, Freiermuth isn’t going to be mistaken for Travis Kelce or some other athletically and productively elite pass-catching tight end in the league. But he’s shown through two seasons that he can hold his own both as a possession option and as an intermediate target to create the occasional explosive play.
That should only continue to bloom as he and young quarterback Kenny Pickett go into their second season together, and first as a working pair, established members of the starting lineup. The two got rather little work together before Pickett was inserted into the starting lineup in week five.
Of course, Washington is also capable of catching a few balls here and there, to put it rather conservatively. There’s more meat on that bone as well to be explored, having gotten relatively few opportunities playing in an offense so loaded with wide receiver talent.
But let’s just sum it up very simply: Washington significantly raises the potential for this offense by opening doors that may have only been ajar at best before. The Steelers should be able to greatly exploit 12-personnel sets this year (that is, two-tight end groupings), and to create confusion for the defense in doing so. If you can run and pass equally well in any look, you have the advantage of playing off of whatever the defense is showing you and doing the opposite.