Last week I was skimming over some camp reports when I came across a surprising revelation. Steelers tight end Zach Gentry has shown some real improvement during the early stages of his second training camp as a professional.
Please allow me the opportunity to explain the reason for my surprise. Gentry is an incredibly raw tight end prospect, only having played the position for two years after starting his collegiate career at Michigan as a quarterback. He declared for the NFL draft after his junior year, forgoing his senior year, further stunting his development. The Steelers selected Gentry in the fifth round, and although he made the roster, last year was essentially a redshirt season for the young man.
So why did the Steelers use a fifth round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft to select an extremely raw tight end prospect when they arguably had more pressing needs elsewhere?
Right after his selection, I half jokingly surmised that the Steelers must be attempting to replace each player they had lost in free agency or via trade after the season with their doppelgangers, players that shared eerie similarities to their predecessors. I mean, they selected Diontae Johnson to replace Antonio Brown, why not Zach Gentry to replace Jesse James? Gentry and James have the obvious similarity, both are extremely tall individuals. That's were their similarities basically end.
Gentry moves like a power forward on a basketball court, whereas James often resembled a baby giraffe whenever he turned to run upfield.
The actual reason the Steelers selected Gentry when they did was because they believe in his potential. You can't teach 6'8" and 265 lbs, with a superior catch radius and better-than-expected movement skills. Gentry is by no means a speedster, but he has a natural gait about him that is uncommon for a athlete of his dimensions, usually reserved for the basketball court. Many a college power forward has made the transition to NFL tight end, but the process takes plenty of hard work and patience from all parties involved.
Last season the Steelers did their part in displaying the aforementioned patience, resulting in a season of learning and conditioning for Gentry. Many fans probably forgot he was even on the roster, and based on the fans enthusiastic response to the Steelers signing Dax Raymond a couple of weeks ago, most viewed Gentry as a long shot to remain on this year's roster.
Gentry appears to have utilized his time off the field wisely. His blocking skills were nonexistent during his rookie training camp, understandable considering he relied on his height to create mismatches in the passing game while at Michigan. This week at camp, head coach Mike Tomlin took notice and verbally praised Gentry after a particularly impressive rep during the blocking sled drill. The hard work appears to be paying dividends.
The Steelers are set at tight end with a pair of proven veterans in Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald. The Steelers have discussed utilizing more two tight end sets this season to increase their creativity, assist the running game, and take full advantage of their two stud tight ends. Sounds like a great idea to me, but there is one potential problem with that plan.
Both Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald have a long history of being injury prone. The odds of either player making it through the season without missing at least a few games due to injury is slim to none. The Steelers are definitely aware of those extremely long odds, and I think they are doing there best to plan accordingly.
Ebron is a instant mismatch on the gridiron and a red zone touchdown magnet. Renowned as a subpar blocker, the Steelers are working with Ebron in the hopes he can become functional in assisting with the run game. Early camp reports have been encouraging.
McDonald is a superior blocker to Ebron, solid if not spectacular. McDonald shows flashes in the passing game, although results can be sporadic. Having Ben Roethlisberger back behind center, plus the other offensive additions like Ebron, should positively impact McDonald as much as anybody with more positive matchups.
Gentry has to be considered the current favorite for the third tight end position, and he potentially could fill in if Ebron does miss some time due to injury. His length, and excellent catch radius, should play well in the red zone. Gentry has a similar skill set to Ebron, to a lesser degree.
The Steelers are still searching for a fourth tight end with superior blocking skills, and they signed young free agent Kyle Markway last week to replace the regrettably injured Dax Raymond. The young newcomer has a reputation as a strong blocker, and will probably be stashed away on the practice squad if that reputation proves legit.
Gentry reportedly has already been making splash plays at camp, including a nifty touchdown reception where he used his impressively long arms to reach completely around the tight coverage of camp standout Ulysees Gilbert lll and secure the catch.
Sounds like the type of play the Steelers had in mind when they utilized a fifth round selection on an extremely raw tight end out of Michigan. Last season should have been Gentry's senior season, but he made the most of a season on the outside looking in.
Now it's time to turn all that potential into production.