Tin foil hat time. Though it’s been speculated and OC Matt Canada hinted at much, there’s more evidence to believe Connor Heyward will have more of a fullback role in his second NFL season. And we can thank the Pittsburgh Steelers for it. Earlier in the week, the team tweeted out this photo of the tight end room flexing.
There’s four names in the photo. From left to right: Rodney Williams, Darnell Washington, Pat Freiermuth, and Zach Gentry. No Connor Heyward in sight.
Which leads me to believe he’s not in the tight end room anymore. Though he doesn’t have the size of a traditional tight end, that was the group he worked in last year. During individual drills, he was with the tight ends under the Alfredo Roberts’ watchful eye.
Based on that photo, and I know it’s just one photo, it suggests Heyward will be in a different group this year. If he’s not with the tight ends, then he’ll join the running back/fullback group led by RBs Coach Eddie Faulkner with the runners (Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, etc.) and the fullbacks (Derek Watt last year, Monte Pottebaum this year).
And it makes the most sense. Heyward was never a tight end. He’s not even six foot with short arms. Pittsburgh moved him around last year, especially as the year went on, and though he did often have a tight end alignment near the line of scrimmage, he was rarely ever actually on the ball. He was a Y-off, lined up a yard behind the LOS, and usually meant he would pull across on split flow action in the run game. Pittsburgh adjusted his usage during his rookie year, first asking him to stay on his feet when he pulled across and upon realizing his lack of size was an issue, they modified course and had him cut defenders instead. The latter was far more effective. Here’s an example of the difference.
With Watt a free agent and unlikely to return, it opens the door for Heyward to have a more centralized fullback role. The Steelers’ tight ends are big blocking types and would more easily allow for Zach Gentry to be kept as a #3 tight end behind Washington and Freiermuth. Heyward can get out in the flat off playaction, do a little lead blocking, and get moved around the formation and stand up in the slot in some of the empty formations the Steelers would be wise to run this season.
Hopefully we’ll hear more about Heyward’s usage in OTAs beginning this week, the first time the 90-man roster comes together (it’s voluntary but most players show) and the Steelers actually begin to practice. If not by now, we’ll know by the summer when we attend training camp and get our own eyes on where Heyward is working during individual and team sessions.