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Steelers Film Room: What kind of player did the Steelers get in TE Nick Vannett?

The Pittsburgh Steelers made another in-season trade, this time for Nick Vannett. Time to see what Vannett brings to the Steelers.

NFL: Los Angeles Rams at Seattle Seahawks Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers completed a trade with the Seahawks on Tuesday that will bring fourth-year tight end Nick Vannett to Pittsburgh in exchange for a fifth round pick in the 2020 draft. Vannett is by no means a game-changer for the offense but he is better than any tight end not named Vance McDonald on the current roster. With McDonald’s status unknown at this moment after injuring his shoulder in San Francisco, Vannett may quickly assume a prominent role in the Steelers offense. Here’s a brief primer on what to expect from the young man and how offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner may use him:


It’s no secret the Steelers healthy tight ends, Xavier Grimble and Zach Gentry, are unaccomplished blockers. Grimble, now in his fourth season, is yet to demonstrate he can handle blocking duties. Gentry, a rookie, was on the field last week for James Conner’s costly fourth quarter fumble. His failure to seal safety Jaquiski Tartt on a sweep play contributed to penetration that knocked the ball loose. Gentry couldn’t seal a safety on a down block where he had a good angle and a forty pound weight advantage. Asking either of these players to block linebackers and defensive ends, then, is unrealistic.

Vannett, on the other hand, is built for the job. Listed at 6’6-260, he has the strength both Grimble and Gentry lack. He was an important blocking cog in Urban Meyer’s power-spread attack at Ohio State and helped pave the way for a monster season from Ezekiel Elliot during the Buckeyes 2014 run to the national championship.

Meyer used Vannett in a variety of ways. He had him kick out ends on traditional gap runs like power, block down on plays like sweep and wrap up to backers on the counter scheme. The Steelers run all of these plays under Fichtner. Below we see Vannett trapping a defensive tackle on a “Wham” concept in the championship game versus Oregon. Vannett (#81) gets good pad level, roll his hips on contact, drives his legs and eventually pancakes the DT. Granted, this is college film. But it shows Vannett is a willing blocker, has solid technique and isn’t afraid to mix it up with the big boys.

Here’s a more recent example from his time with the Seahawks. Seattle is in an unbalanced heavy formation on a 4th and 1 play. Vannett, the second tight end in on the right side of the formation, has to beat the backer inside so the backer can’t pinch across his face into the B-gap, where the running back is headed. He does a great job of both sealing the backer from pinching and then driving him a full two yards off of the line of scrimmage. This is even more impressive considering Vannett does not have his feet set properly when he makes contact with the backer. His base is narrow and he is slightly off-balance at the strike point. But Vannett is strong enough to maintain control of the block and manages to gather his feet, reset his base and move the backer off of the ball.

What we see in Vannett as a blocker is a guy who is powerful at the point of attack and plays with good technique. That makes him an immediate upgrade over both Grimble and Gentry in the run game.


Vannett is not a significant receiving threat. He had just four receptions through three games in Seattle this season and just 48 through 42 games for his career. He’s not particularly fast or mobile and he’s not going to beat linebackers down the seam ala George Kittle (or even the guy who took most of his reps in Seattle, Will Dissly). But he does have decent hands and, with his 6’6 frame, provides a big target for Mason Rudolph.

One reason the Steelers seem to have made the move for Vannett is they recognize that, in order to help Rudolph, they must improve their run game. The Steelers currently rank 29th in the league averaging a miserable 64 yards rushing per game. That’s a recipe for disaster with Rudolph if it doesn’t improve. By contrast, during Ben Roethlisberger’s first season as a starter in 2004, the Steelers finished second in the league in rushing at 156 yards per game. No one expects the addition of Vannett to add almost 100 yards per game to the Steelers’ rushing total. But it should be of some help.

If the Steelers can feature Vannett as an in-line blocker, it should produce some decent play-action pass opportunities. Seattle did a nice job using Vannett in play-action, especially from 12 personnel sets. It’s hard to see the beginning of the play in the GIF below , but Seattle is in a two tight end set with both TEs to the right of Russell Wilson. They run a simple “Smash” concept whereby one receiver (Vannett) runs a corner route while the other runs to the flat. The play-action comes off of an outside zone scheme, which the Steelers run a good deal of, and Vannett gets over top of the corner quickly, where Wilson hits him for a nice gain.

The Seahawks are under center here, which helps play-action because the quarterback can turn his back on the defense and hide the football. From the shotgun, play-action doesn’t afford that sort of deception. The Steelers have been hesitant to go under center with Rudolph, likely because he played in shotgun-spread schemes in both high school and college and is simply not comfortable there. Developing a run package from under center would lessen the burden on Rudolph to make full-field coverage reads out of the shotgun and would also allow for greater play-action opportunities. A tight end like Vannett might encourage Fichtner to do so.


The Steelers gave up a fifth round pick to acquire Vannett in a draft where they have already forfeited their first and their third selections. They acquired a fourth from Miami, however, and are likely to receive a third round compensatory pick for Le’Veon Bell. So, with picks in rounds 2 and 3, two in round 4 and one each in rounds 6 and 7, it’s not like they went all Mike Ditka and traded away their entire draft.

A fifth round pick for Vannett is certainly reasonable, considering the area of need the trade addressed and the Steelers recent history of fifth round picks (Marcus Allen, Brian Allen, Shaq Richardson, Wesley Johnson, Terry Hawthorne, etc). It’s too early to judge Gentry, this season’s fifth-rounder, although he seems a long way from being an impact player. Only Jesse James, taken in the fifth round in 2015, was successful from that draft position in the past decade. The odds seem likely that Vannett, who was serviceable in Seattle, will make a greater impact than anyone on that list not named Jesse. If he turns into a solid #2 tight end who can allow us, once McDonald recovers, to run some of the 12 personnel sets that were effective when James was here, and to protect Rudolph by evolving the run game beyond its current miserable status, then the trade will be a success.

Whether we resign Vannett, who is in the last year of his rookie contract, is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s hope he at least upgrades a position group that, with or without McDonald, was clearly in need of help.