Geoffrey: With the Steelers draft approaching, I thought it would be fun to discuss some of the offensive players the Steelers could target, with a look at how they would fit in to the Steelers 2021 offense. I got Kevin Smith (CHISAP) on board to give his thoughts as well.
We are starting with tight end, the position most likely to change under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Wherever Canada has coached he has used tight ends in versatile ways. Heath Miller spent his whole career lining up in largely the same spot, that isn’t what we’ll see from Steeler tight ends in 2021.
For a short breakdown on how Matt Canada uses tight ends, I’ll turn it over to Kevin.
Kevin: One thing we’ve noted since Canada was hired is that he’s great at adapting his offense to his personnel. If he has a bunch of slammers, he’ll pound the football. If he has quick guys, he’ll get them the ball in space. It’s a logical approach. But sometimes, with the way coordinators can get attached to a system, it can be overlooked.
Accordingly, Canada has used tight ends in a variety of ways over the years. They’ve been anything from glorified offensive tackles (Wisconsin) to big, athletic running backs (Jaylen Samuels at NC State). His favorite way to use a tight end is as an off-ball H-back who performs a variety of roles. Canada’s H-backs move around the formation and can line up as a fullback, a wingback, a slot receiver or a traditional tight end. He schemes them to get an extra blocker at the point of attack in the run game or to find a favorable matchup in the passing game. They are asked to block, catch and even run the ball at times.
Ideally, this requires a versatile player who is both strong and athletic. Here’s a look at some of those candidates in the upcoming draft.
Kyle Pitts (Florida)
Kevin: Kyle Pitts is the gold standard for tight ends in both this draft and just about any draft you can think of. There have only been four tight ends taken in the Top 10 overall picks since 1997. Pitts seems destined to be the fifth.
Pitts is 6’6-245 and ran an absurd 4.44 forty at his Pro Day. At Florida, he often played in the slot, where his athleticism allowed him to destroy safeties and linebackers in coverage and his size made him a problem for most corners. He runs routes with the fluidity of an outside receiver and his speed makes him a home-run threat in the open field. He is not the most physical blocker in the draft but he’s not an unwilling one, either. In short, Pitts is a special talent.
Pitts would be ridiculously good in Canada’s offense. But, like all those million dollar beach houses in my hometown that my wife and I can’t afford, he’s going to be unattainable for the Steelers.
Geoffrey: Something you will hear about Kyle Pitts is that Florida used him to block too much, something you will also hear said of the Steelers and Eric Ebron. Early on in the 2020 season when the run game was working in Pittsburgh, Eric Ebron was a reliable target averaging 40-50 yards a game and on pace for a career best season. When the run game fell apart Ebron was targeted more, but with worse results as he was asked to make tougher catches to replace the run game. Pitts will work the same. He would be a great fit in Pittsburgh’s offense in 2020 and would be the centerpiece of the offense when it has to break in a new quarterback.
Kyle Pitts could fall in a big way and still not reach Pittsburgh, so this is just fun speculation. Pitts would be a dream pick, but any thoughts of him falling to the Steelers is just a fantasy.
Pat Freiermuth (Penn State)
Geoffrey: Pat Freiermuth would give the Steelers a high end receiving tight end to pair with Eric Ebron. Freiermuth showed willingness as a blocker in college to go with good straight line speed. He isn’t a savvy route runner, he didn’t show a lot of talent for finding ways to get open on short routes, but provided a lot of value attacking the seams on deeper routes.
In my opinion Freiermuth adds a lot of the same deep threat that Eric Ebron brings. That could be a great fit in the Steelers offense. The last season Ben Roethlisberger had two tight ends that were healthy and solid as receivers was 2018, when the Steelers frequently used Jesse James and Vance McDonald together and were one of the best passing teams in the NFL to tight ends.
Kevin: I like the comparison of Ebron and Freiermuth to James and McDonald, with the difference being the former duo would be far more versatile and athletic. Ebron would operate predominantly as the off-ball tight end in 12 personnel packages but Freiermuth can play that role as well. The Steelers would put defenses in a bind with two versatile tight ends on the field paired with any of their receivers. They could attack any area of the field in the passing game and have better options in the run game, too.
Adding Freiermuth would also solidify the tight end position if Ebron departs after the 2021 season. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a first or second round pick to get him. With bigger immediate needs at center, running back and linebacker, it’s hard to see the Steelers spending a high pick on a tight end who, with Ebron and four established receivers already on the roster, may not see a ton of snaps as a rookie.
Tommy Tremble (Notre Dame)
Kevin: Geoffrey and I are both high on Tommy Tremble for the Steelers. At 6’3-242, he’s more an H-back than a pure tight end. But his varied skill set makes him valuable no matter how his position is defined.
Tremble is a physical player who relishes contact. To put it bluntly, he looks to punish defenders whether he is blocking or carrying the football. He’s a high-energy player whose relentless effort will make him a fan favorite. Think Ryan Clark if he were an H-back.
Tremble is more than just a hammer, though. He ran 4.59 in the forty at Notre Dame’s Pro Day, which makes him a great blend of athleticism and physicality. Tremble was not showcased much as a receiver in Notre Dame’s offense but he is capable in that regard. He also lined up at fullback and would be a nice Swiss Army knife for Canada to play with. Tremble’s stock is rising but he’s likely to be available in the third round. If he is, the Steelers should give him serious consideration.
Geoffrey: I agree with Kevin’s take on Tremble, and I’ll add to it. Tremble is the kind of athlete that would create immediate pressure on the defense in Canada’s motion heavy plays. His ability to block, or slip out and make a catch with his high end athleticism for his size is a serious weapon. When he would go into motion the defense would have to account for him as a potential receiver, blocker or even as a ball carrier on shovel passes and sweeps.
He’s a raw prospect as a route runner, but those motion plays often create releases and pressure without asking the player to run a good route. He would have the upside of a player that can improve his skills and become a real receiver as a tight end, but even without that he would be a tough matchup for the defense to account for.
Hunter Long (Boston College)
Geoffrey: Hunter Long led all Division I tight ends in receptions in 2020. He also is expected to fall to the late rounds of the draft. Long is not a high end athlete and his route running isn’t great, he’s more of a blocking tight end, but like most college players is going to need to hit an NFL weight room for a while to bring the same level of blocking to the NFL.
He’s not a new tight end, he’s a throwback to the Heath Miller mold of tight ends. He’s no Heath Miller, but in the current NFL Heath Miller wouldn’t be a first round pick. Hunter Long highlight film is a long series of play action passes. He does a great job of slipping his blocks and finding space in the defense, and he shows really good hands and body control at the catch point. Long would also free up Eric Ebron to move around and not have to worry about playing in-line as much. Ebron is a much better player when he isn’t lined up next to the offensive tackles’ shoulder.
Kevin: Long would be a nice compliment to Ebron. He played for Steve Addazio for three years at BC, whose offense was built on power runs and play-action passes. In that regard, Addazio is similar to Canada, just without all the bells and whistles. So, Long would be well-trained in many of the things Canada would want him to do.
Long is one of the better blocking tight ends in the draft but, as Geoffrey noted, may need time in the weight room to get stronger. That means it’s unlikely he’ll see the field a lot as a rookie. His draft projection is all over the place. I’ve seen him as high as the third round and as low as the sixth. If the Steelers could get him in the middle of that window, maybe with one of their two selections in the fourth, he’d be worth the investment.
Tre’ McKitty (Georgia)
Geoffrey: McKitty spent most of his college career at Florida State, where he was used out wide and not very much in-line or as an H-back. He transferred to Georgia to play in the SEC in more traditional tight end roles so he could show his ability to block. The interest in Tre’McKitty rose after a great performance at the Senior Bowl that showed he may have more to offer than he showed in college as a receiver.
McKitty has lined up all over the field. Out wide, in the slot, in the backfield, in-line, H-back and wingback. He also was a valuable player in two different offensive systems. When he got a chance to play in a more pro-style offense at the Senior Bowl, he did even better. He’d be an interesting pick up late in the draft.
Kevin: To me, McKitty is Ebron 2.0. I agree with Geoffrey about his athleticism and versatility. I’m just not sold on his physicality. If the Steelers want a replacement for Ebron, I’m on board. If they want a compliment, he feels redundant. I don’t think he’s physical enough to be the predominant in-line blocking tight end in 12 personnel sets and, if they’re drafting him to catch passes, I’d rather leave one of their established receivers on the field.
That said, I would not be opposed to McKitty as a day-three pick. He could be a nice replacement for Ebron down the road. I’m just not sure how he fits in the current Pittsburgh offense.
In conclusion, here’s how we’d rank these tight ends, not in terms of ability but rather practicality. How do they fit in Pittsburgh, and what would it take to get them?
- Tremble (3rd round). Great fit and the cost shouldn’t be too high. He would be a demon on special teams from day one as he grows into his H-back role.
- Long (first of our two 4th round picks). He’d be a nice fallback option if we miss out on Tremble.
- McKitty (5th-6th round). I don’t love the fit with Ebron but if McKitty is still there in the sixth (or even as a trade-up into the fifth) he’s too good a prospect to bypass.
- Freiermuth (2nd round). If Freiermuth is sitting there at #55, he’d be very tempting. But I suspect he'll be gone, which means we’d have to trade up to get him. That’s too expensive for what we need in this draft at a position we can likely fill with a later pick.
- Pitts (1st round). We’d have to trade into the top 10 to take him. Not gonna happen.
- Freiermuth (2nd round) The deep threat of Freiermuth and Ebron would open up the underneath passing game for Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, and draw safety help off of Chase Claypool.
- Tremble (3rd round) If you asked me to design an H-back for Matt Canada’s offense, that player would be named Tommy Tremble.
- Pitts (trade up in first) Let’s say half the NFL goes crazy. Pitts falls to 15, the Steelers make a big trade up and grab him. Holes elsewhere matter less when you have that kind of a talent on your team. He’d do for the Steelers what Kelce does for the Chiefs.
- McKitty (5th round) If the Steelers haven’t addressed the position by the 5th round and McKitty is there, it should be an easy selection.
- Long (4th round) Long fits in great with Ebron in 2021, but after that he’s a Matt Spaeth in need of a #1 TE who also fits the H-Back role in Canada’s offense. That’s not a lot of value.