When Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin appeared on Thursday’s episode of The Rich Eisen Show, he dished on multiple members of the 2023 draft, including third-round tight end Darnell Washington.
“Washington is really talented,” Tomlin said. “He’s got an awesome story. I love his appetite for the position, the blocking component of the position. He’s a throwback if you will. He’s a guy that really has really good knowledge itself and he embraces his skill set. He’s excited about the blocking component of the game.”
Tomlin noted that when he was watching offensive tackle Broderick Jones, Washington’s fellow rookie out of the University of Georgia, he couldn’t help but see Washington.
“It’s been so fun, the evaluation process, because when I was evaluating Broderick, I was essentially evaluating Darnell at the same time,” Tomlin said. “So much of their [Georgia’s] success, particularly in the run game, was tied to those two guys being shoulder to shoulder and moving people and doing the things that they do. So it was a two-for-one. ”
Standing at 6’7 and 270 pounds, there’s no question Washington has the build to help the Steelers in the run game just as he did at the University of Georgia. He also brings a winning pedigree, having won the national championship with the Bulldogs in both 2021 and 2022. In 2022, Georgia averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Conversely, the Steelers averaged 4.2 yards per carry in 2022, tied for the eighth-worst average in the league with two other teams.
While today’s NFL has certainly trended towards a passing league and Pittsburgh likes who it has at quarterback in Kenny Pickett, there’s no question that Tomlin and the Steelers want to establish a quality running game. A team doesn’t select a running back like Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft without intending to have a darn good run game. However, the run game wasn’t that last season for Pittsburgh. Adding Washington to the tight end room gives the offense another blocker to put on the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers do not have to depend on Washington to make an immediate impact in the passing game, either. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, entering his third season in the league, has solidified himself as a quality option at the position after averaging 11.6 yards per catch on 63 receptions in 2022. However, Washington envisions himself as being a complete tight end one day. He finished his career at Georgia with 45 receptions for 774 yards and three touchdowns. The 17.2 yards per reception show that Washington certainly has promise in terms of being a quality receiving option.
The Steelers simply don’t need Washington to come in and be a high-flying member of the passing attack. They’ll certainly take any production they get out of him; but to start, they want someone to line up and drive defenders off the line of scrimmage and into the dirt.
The combination of athletic prowess and size that Washington has doesn’t come along very often, and there was talk of him being a late first-round or second-round pick. So why was Pittsburgh able to get him in the third round? Washington fell due to knee concerns, so keeping the new tight end healthy is a priority for the Steelers, according to Tomlin.
“We’re just gonna work with him closely about the day-to-day management of things in an effort to elongate his career and to stay ahead of it, probably more than anything,” Tomlin said. “But that’s an education process that we’re taking all the young guys through. It’s just part of being a professional, taking care of your body, maintenance in your body, staying ahead of ailments that could slow you down at some point. Establishing the type of day-to-day habits that’s gonna allow him to be consistently available.”
Tomlin and the Steelers seem confident that the knee swelling at the Combine is not an issue and are educating him and the other incoming rookies on how to keep themselves available. If Washington can stay healthy, he certainly can help pave the way for a resurgent running game in Pittsburgh.