That the Pittsburgh Steelers would draft a tight end this year was far from a given. While many hoped that they would, and most probably recognized that they might if the right opportunity presented itself, it was acknowledged that their tight end room didn’t necessarily need to be addressed in 2023. This was decidedly in the “want” territory.
But there are certain things that the Steelers want to do and to be as an offense that they felt third-round pick Darnell Washington would allow them to do. When he was surprisingly available late on day two, they pounced without hesitation, acknowledging that he was their highest player on the board for some time prior to that pick. After all, the manner in which the Steelers prefer to use tight ends is no longer the league norm, as those around the NFL also recognize.
“They are different in that their tight end has to block”, Mike Sando of The Athletic quotes one unnamed NFL executive as saying. “It’s one of those positions for them that can have strict criteria, and they are not afraid to use draft picks, from Mark Bruener to Heath Miller to Pat Freiermuth. They are all on the plus side of 250 pounds, at least 6-4, and they can catch. I think you’ll see a lot of two tight ends and run the ball”.
I’m not sure you can draft a guy who brands himself as a sixth lineman and prevent him from throwing blocks, anyway. Even if they tried, he would find a way to knock people on the ground. That’s just what Washington does. He moves people against their will.
And his 6’7”, 270-pound frame can at times make it look effortless. While Zach Gentry has developed into the team’s blocking tight end over the past two years, there’s a good chance that he loses that role as the primary option early in the season, if not right out of the chute.
But there will be times they will want to use both, maybe even use three tight ends with Freiermuth as well. Freiermuth still has room to grow as a blocker, and with Washington now in the room, he may feel compelled to step up his game in that area. He talked between his rookie season and the 2022 season about how he wanted to work on that area of his game. There’s still time.
The great thing about today’s NFL is that using 12 personnel doesn’t automatically mean running the football. Not because the Steelers shouldn’t run it, but because their opponents shouldn’t know what they’re going to do before the snap.
When you have multiple tight ends who can block and catch, then coming out in 12 personnel provides you with a great advantage. Defenses doesn’t know if you will run or pass, and if they try to commit to one over the other, you can simply do the opposite. And if they don’t commit to either, then they’re still in an uncomfortable spot.