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Pittsburgh Steelers Offseason Needs, Part 4: Tight Ends

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TE is one of the Steelers’ biggest holes, but by far weakest part of the 2019 draft class.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ No. 1 need is obvious: a guaranteed, blue chip, future Hall of Fame quarterback who will push Ben Roethlisberger for snaps, even in his rookie year. Picking at #18 in the second round that quarterback will be...[crickets]. Besides, who’s to say Roethlisberger won’t play for another three years? So let’s ignore that position and move on to the next tier of priorities. Today we look at the Tight Ends, which would be just as high a priority list as any position if there were any players worth an early pick. Alas, but that isn’t the case. If you missed a day of the series, you can check them out below:

Part 1: Running Backs

Part 2: Offensive Linemen

Part 3: Wide Receivers

CURRENT TIGHT END ROSTER:

* TE-1 Vance McDonald. 6’4”, 267 lbs. Age 29, going into year 8. FA 2022. We all know the story. The free agent from San Francisco with a freakish combination of physical assets but an inability to stay healthy. A fine player who would be worth his salary if he could only stay on the field. Can both block and catch.

* TE-2 Nick Vannett. 6’6”, 261 lbs. Age 26, going into year 5. Unrestricted Free Agent. A midseason acquisition from Seattle who blocks at a average to slightly better level and has average to slightly worse receiving skills.

* TE-3 Zach Gentry. 6’8”, 265 lbs. Age 23, going into year 2. FA 2023. Drafted in Round 5 of the 2019 draft on the basis of pure potential. You can’t teach that kind of size and he was new to the position even in college. Enjoyed a redshirt rookie year. What can you say but, “We’ll see”? The upside for winning jump balls is obvious, but that kind of length can actually interfere when it comes to blocking.

CURRENT PRACTICE SQUAD/FUTURES PLAYERS

* TE-4 Christian Scotland-Williamson. 6’9”, 274 lbs. Age 26. The British rugby star who doesn’t cost a roster spot on the practice squad. The 2019 preseason showed some basic receiving skills, and everyone loves his attitude, but blocking is a problem for anyone with that kind of length and he first touched a football only three years ago.

* TE-5 Kevin Rader. 6’4”, 250 lbs. Age 24, going into year 2. A local product from Pine-Richland who got his redshirt chance to learn on the Steelers practice squad. Fell to a 2019 UDFA due to very poor measurables on the NFL scale of athletic talent.

NOTABLE CAP ISSUES

* Nick Vannett is a current free agent and likely to command more on the open market than Pittsburgh can afford to pay. That won’t be a huge figure, but the homegrown defensive free agents like Bud Dupree, Javon Hargrave, Mike Hilton, and Sean Davis are going to get first shot at the very small pool of available money.

It looks like this will be my last article for BTSC, which makes it especially painful to deliver bad news in the substance, but I have to nevertheless. Everyone who follows this team agrees that Tight End is a critical hole, and maybe it’s single biggest. I like Vance McDonald, but even so I will admit that he’s only good for half a season’s snaps. He, and thus the Steelers, need a blocking capable TE to share the load. A rookie who fits that description would have the inside track on Pittsburgh’s Round 2 pick. He doesn’t exist.

Speaking as a certified Tight End junkie who keenly appreciates the need, I see only one Tight End in the entire class who I’d even consider for that initial pick. And even he would be a minor reach. This. Class. Sucks.

Legendarily.

I don’t know what else to say. There are a few options who might be okay in Round 3, but (a) they fall that far because of some significant flaws, and (b) they won’t fall all the way to 3:comp because they have too many assets. Picking where they do is going to put our favorite team in no-TE limbo. Which sucks. Legendarily.

My main hope is that someone who is lightly regarded at this point in time will rise up the Board as more data comes in. It does happen! Draft watchers have often noticed a pattern over the past few years in which TE prospects known as “mere blockers” in college revealed startling athleticism at the Combine, and then went on to surprising success at the next level. George Kittle was just the biggest example. So I won’t say, “abandon all hope.” Just that hope is pretty much all I have left after the initial review of this year’s options.

The draft class is so dire that I fully expect the team to pinch a few pennies even harder in order to acquire that desperately needed TE2 through free agency. Maybe it will even be Vannett. It is either that or a bet on one of the titan-sized longshots (Zach Gentry and Christian Scotland-Williamson). Don’t rely on the draft.

Okay Hammer, we get it. There’s basically no one who can block, that is the primary skill that Pittsburgh is looking for, and no rookie in history has learned to block at NFL levels without a year or four of very hard work. But big, jump-ball receivers who can threaten the seam are worth something too, aren’t they? Let McDonald serve as the blocker.

First, I don’t really agree. Successful “Move TE’s” thrive on mismatches. They win as mismatch nightmares who are too fast for Linebackers in the passing game, and too good at blocking for Safeties to deal with if the QB checks to a run. TE’s need both sides of that to create the defensive dilemma. A TE who can’t block Safeties into next week will not get the mismatches that make him an NFL receiving weapon. Yes, there are a few prospects who would challenge the coverage skills of many starting Safeties. And yes, two or three of those might battle to a tie if asked to block a smaller or less skilled Safety. That does have value. But how much? You will find all three listed on the Board with Round 3 or early 4 grades, and the expectation that other TE-needy teams will roll the dice on them somewhere near the early 3rd: i.e., after our Round 2 pick and before our expected Round 3 compensatory pick.

Couldn’t the team change it’s philosophy on how to use Move TE’s? When you have red paint, paint the barn red?

Sure. But you have to compare those prospects to actual WR’s once you lower your aim to one dimensional passing game weapons. Is Hunter Bryant (6’2”, 238 lbs.) or Cole Kmet (6’4”, 235 lbs.) even close to the receiving weapon offered by WR prospects like Collin Johnson (6’6”, 220 lbs.), Chase Claypool (6’4”, 229 lbs.), or Michael Pittman Jr. (6’4”, 220 lbs.)? Nope. Not even close. Those guys would butcher Safeties in the passing game, and aren’t much worse than this year’s Move TE prospects at positional, get-in-the-way blocking. Those receivers all have similar grades to the receiving TE’s for what it is worth.

Third, even fans need to be a little bit fair at times. The Steelers’ much maligned group of backup TE’s aren’t complete wastes of space. They really do offer some upside as pure, jump ball receivers. Gentry, at 6’8”, has at least three full inches on the Round 3 guys plus a year of NFL training. Scotland-Williamson is 6’9” and a rugby thug! Those two would deserve a shot at the field if they were able to block at anything like an acceptable TE standard. Is a rookie prospect who can’t block really that much better than those two? Better enough to justify one of Pittsburgh’s few remaining draft picks? Better enough to outweigh the benefits offered by more talented players at positions like OL and RB?

[Sigh]. This really sucks. Legen... Oh, never mind.

Finally, I come back to the reality that we are talking about relative value, not absolute. I do not mean to imply that none of this year’s prospects have a chance of success in the NFL. Young men grow and mature, and some receiving TE’s even learn to block. No one is dropping them off the Steelers’ Big Board completely. The goal is to give them a fair, team-specific grade compared to all the other prospects in the draft. I would not, personally, draft any pure Move TE for the Steelers before Round 4. Giving these prospects Round 3 grades despite my personal belief isn’t exactly cruel. I also need to point out that I am capable of being wrong. Do not abandon hope; just don’t be blinded by it or, worse yet, play the fool by blindly plugging “highest rated TE” into your mock draft. The real point is that TE shouldn’t be seriously considered for the initial pick in Round 2 because of the actual prospects and their limitations, even if you agree we’d definitely want to target a Round 2 TE who was able to block.

Bad news delivered. Let’s move on to the actual list of prospects. Just as before, I emphasize that these grades are PRELIMINARY AND FOR THE SAKE OF DISCUSSION. I have watched no film of these players and only a game or two in which some of them appeared. Almost all the descriptions are summaries of what I found with a few quick scans of the Internet. Please consider yourselves invited – actively requested – to make corrections and suggestions in the Comments, and to provide links that we can add to the few I’ve included.

I particularly request any evidence showing better than expected blocking talents in the prospects who’ve been downgraded as nothing more than oversized receivers.

TIGHT END PROSPECTS

2:24 TE Cole Kmet, Notre Dame (Junior). 6’4”, 235 lbs. The best of a poor class from the Pittsburgh POV. Like most of this year’s group, Kmet made his primary mark in college as a solid receiving option who can get deep down the seam and possess good hands for settling into zones. Solid, but not exceptional. He stands alone for Pittsburgh because he has a better attitude toward blocking than the other Round 2 receiving talents. The issue is his very marginal size to get that done. That said, a lot of blocking comes down to the proverbial size of the fight in the dog rather than the dog in the fight. Enough observers have commented on Kmet’s willingness to scrap to earn a late-2nd grade; i.e., only a minor reach at 2:18.

3:01 TE Brycen Hopkins, Purdue. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 245 lbs. Widely considered the premier TE in the class, this gif-supported January scouting report from Steelers Depot shows a big bodied receiver who blocks really well – for a receiver. As a blocking TE he ranks no better than poor. Hopkins gets in the way of defenders eagerly enough, but looks basically helpless when asked to play in-line or even to deal with a Safety that’s gotten up a head of steam. Film suggests that he excels at getting open, and has some hard-to-catch game speed. Those are significant assets. The safety blanket hands one expects of a receiving TE still need some work. He also gets a minor downcheck for age, since Pittsburgh likes to draft on the younger side.

3:12 TE Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 260 lbs. He looks the part and he has the hands, but he needs to improve in basically every part of his game. A decent gamble at 3:comp or early in Round 4. Maybe higher than that if he kills the Combine enough to suggest a higher ceiling. OTOH, he will be a 23 year old rookie rather than the kid that Pittsburgh prefers to target.

4:01 TE Hunter Bryant, Washington. (Junior). 6’2”, 239 lbs. Another WR/TE hybrid who can do the receiving part of the job quite well but won’t hold up when asked to be a blocker.

4:01 TE Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri. (RS Junior). 6’5”, 255 lbs. He looks the part and has marvelous hands, but he is more of a steady athlete in the old fashioned TE mold than a mismatch guy for the modern era, and back in the day he’d be viewed as a poor in-line blocker. The size is there but not the technique or results.

4:16 TE Cheyenne O’Grady, Arkansas. (RS Senior). 6’4”, 248 lbs. This one hurts! O’Grady checks all the boxes needed to award a solid Round 2 grade, and he would have probably been ranked as the best TE in the class but for off-field issues. Arkansas suspended him partway through his final season despite his being one of it’s few legitimate stars. I’ve found no suggestion that the coaches might be the problem behind that, either. Nor is he particularly young. But if you are looking for a potential steal and you’re willing to ignore all the smoke, this is your guy.

4:16 TE Colby Parkinson, Stanford. (Junior). 6’7”, 251 lbs. Fits the mold of a TE2 quite well. Has excellent height and reach, with superior athleticism overall and very good hands. Coming out of Stanford you know he’s also very smart. The issue is blocking. By all accounts he’s willing enough when asked to play in-line, but his height has caused real issues with getting any push. He projects a decent pass blocker but never a force in the running game – the sort of TE who gets in the way of defenders and obstructs them, but not the sort who will dig them out or push them around. His grade could easily soar up the Board by a round or even two if he blows up the Combine.

5:01 TE Jacob Breeland, Oregon. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 250 lbs. A fully functional TE with decent size for the position and ordinary (for the NFL) athletic gifts. His stock rose throughout 2019 as a multipurpose weapon until a season ending knee injury in December.

5:16 TE Josiah Deguara, Cincinnati. (RS Senior). 6’3”, 240 lbs. A fully functional TE with very marginal size for the position and ordinary (for the NFL) athletic gifts. Desirable TE3 floor paired with a hard TE2 ceiling. Another grade that could soar if he blows up the Combine.

6:01 TE Adam Trautman, Dayton. (RS Senior). 6’6”, 253 lbs. He’s got the physical gifts but he is – to be blunt – a basketball player from a small school who spent his football life at QB until this year. Not bad at getting down field, boxing defenders out, and catching the ball. Everything else is a complete work in progress. Sounds a lot like a slightly smaller and less accomplished version of Zach Gentry.

6:16 TE Mitchell Wilcox, South Florida. (RS Senior). 6’5”, 245 lbs. An oversized WR from a smaller school. Has some gifts but requires a huge amount of projection.

7:01 TE Luke Farrell, Ohio State. (RS Junior). 6’6”, 250 lbs. A capable blocking TE who looks outright slow when asked to be a receiver. The sort of player who will become a draftnik sensation if he kills the Combine (or pro day if he doesn’t get invited) with unsuspected athletic talents, or will disappear from everyone’s radar screen if the feet really are that heavy.

7:16 TE Harrison Bryant, Florida Atlantic. (Senior). 6’5”, 240 lbs. A decent but not exceptional receiver from a small school with a build that makes even positional blocking a genuine challenge. Caught between a WR who lacks the requisite explosion and a TE who lacks the requisite oomph.


For those less familiar with the offseason discussions than the rest of us, the annual BTSC Big Boards are organized by Highest Value (“HV#”) to the Steelers. Great players for other teams get downgraded here, as do positions where Pittsburgh has limited “want.” An HV of 1:25 means the player is a reach for the Steelers at any point before Pick # 25 overall but good value at any point from the end of the 1st on. Getting that player in the early 2nd would be fine, while getting him late in Round 2 would almost be a steal. Yes, this system results in a certain amount of grade inflation for positions of need because we are talking about the “highest” grade, not the one where a player is expected to go; but grades are never pushed up just because of need. Players with the same HV# are organized alphabetically.

Rounds are subdivided as follows:

  • 1st Round grades: 1:01, 1:05, 1:10, 1:15, 1:20, or 1:25.
  • 2nd & 3rd Round grades: Early (#:01), Mid (#:12), or Late (#:24).
  • 4th to 7th Round grades: Early (#:01) or Late (#:16).