Pat Freiermuth's breakout season might depend on who's under center

Pat Freiermuth is ready to break out this season, but depending on the winner of the QB competition, we may have to temper our expectations.

The second-year tight end has all the trappings of a breakout candidate: college success (2019 Penn State offensive MVP, 2020 Big 10 Tight End of the Year), physical prowess (6'5, 260 lbs with receiver speed), draft pedigree (55th overall in 2021), and a strong rookie season already under his belt (60 receptions for 497 yards and 7 TDs). Steeler fans, NFL talking heads, and fantasy aficionados alike have all taken notice of #88, with many dubbing "Baby Gronk" a prime candidate to have a "breakout" season.

There's a lot to like about Freiermuth's potential this season, but I think there are some important questions to answer before I place my wagers.

What makes a breakout season?

I think the best metric to track is yards.

Touchdowns are a streaky/inconsistent statistic, especially for position players, so I tend to avoid using that as my primary measure of success. Yards tend to more accurately reflect a player's value over a whole season, so I'd argue that a player needs to finish top ten in yards for his position to be considered a breakout. This is especially true for a top-heavy position like tight end. Consider the following:

Over the past five seasons, only seven tight ends have eclipsed 1,000 yards: Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Zach Ertz, Mark Andrews, Darren Waller, and Kyle Pitts. No more than three have done it in the same year, so the "1K Club" is rare air. In the same period, only four additional tight ends have even cracked 800 yards: Delanie Walker, Jared Cook, Dallas Goedert, and Dalton Schultz. Now that Gronkowski, Walker, and Cook are all out of the league, eight TEs remain in that "elite" category, with Kelce and Andrews currently in a league of their own.

Let's say 800 yards is the cost of admission to finishing top 10 in yards and becoming a "breakout" tight end.

Is there a path to a breakout?

I think so.

Here's what I think gets him there in 2022.

1. Confidence

With a defined role from the start and a full year in Matt Canada's offense, Freiermuth should be able to shine.

Last year, he had to earn trust from Ben Roethlisberger and wrestle snaps away from veteran Eric Ebron. This was a pretty seamless process, as Freiermuth's ability to catch a football separated him from his main competition pretty early on in the season. On top of being the obvious #1 in the tight end room, he proved dependable and hard to cover in the red-zone, and ended up being one of Roethlisberger's top four targets when the dust settled. This year, he won't have to worry about "earning" targets: he'll be the clear-cut TE1 from Day 1. If he couples the added confidence of incumbency with the savvy he's gained from a full year in the offensive system, and I think he can have a ton of success.

2. Better offensive personnel

Pittsburgh will also have a new starting QB in 2022, and he'll be throwing behind an improved offensive line. All pass-catchers should benefit.

Last season, behind the league's 26th-ranked offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger had just 2.2 seconds of pocket time per snap (33rd out of 34 QBs to play 8+ games) and very little run-game support (Pittsburgh finished an abysmal 29th in rush yards before contact - God bless Najee Harris for salvaging this offense). A surgically-repaired elbow hampered Roethlisberger to just 3.4 air yards per pass attempt (34th out of 34), and conservative play-calling compounded the issue. For the better part of two seasons, defenses keyed in on Pittsburgh's one-dimensional offense and Roethlisberger's hesitance/inability to challenge downfield- mostly by stacking the box and crowding the middle of the field (where TEs feast).

In the offseason, Pittsburgh brought in two new starters on the offensive line (James Daniels and Mason Cole) and two new quarterbacks (Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett) to compete for the starting spot. Daniels and Cole can't possibly be worse than Kendrick Green and Trai Turner, and should help extend pocket time for whichever QB starts. Additionally, both new QBs are much better downfield passing threats than Roethlisberger was in 2021, with Pickett posting 4.9 air/y/a in his last year at Pitt (he was also 2nd in total air yards) and Trubisky posting 3.9 air/y/a in his last year with Chicago (he was 19th in total air yards in his last full season as a starter). This should excite Steelers fans.

With more pocket time, less stacked boxes, and defenses respecting a stronger arm under center, we can expect to see a lot of shallow and intermediate targets open up for this offense, including #88. Freiermuth is a menace in the seam and defenses will struggle to contain him if they're spread out.

3. Vacated targets

In addition to the new targets that better personnel will create, Freiermuth also has an opportunity to capitalize on some of the target share left behind by departing weapons.

In free agency, the Steelers let Ray-Ray McCloud, James Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Eric Ebron walk. This amounts to 156 vacated targets (112 from guys who specialize inside or underneath), good for 23.4% of the offense's pass attempts. Plus, fellow NFL sophomore Najee Harris (94 targets) is expected to see a lighter workload after leading the league in touches (381) as a rookie, meaning at least a few more checkdown targets will be available, too. Pittsburgh will look to allocate some targets to rookie receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III, but I don't know if that will significantly cut into Freiermuth's target share. Based on draft position and otherworldly talent, Pickens is probably the more likely of the two to play, and he is more of an X than an inside threat. Austin could get some snaps too, but it remains to be seen whether the diminutive Memphis product will be used vertically or in the slot. There is also talk of Chase Claypool moving inside as a "big slot" to allow Pickens to get more touches outside, but I believe the coaching staff thinks Claypool is better suited as a deep threat and will play him there.

In any event, it seems the lion's share of vacated underneath/inside work will still be available. Freiermuth makes the most sense of any pass-catcher to assume the bulk of these vacated targets, and even a small share of them could mean a massive increase in volume for the second-year pro.

How likely is a breakout?

Pretty likely. Let's consider a few scenarios for how it could play out. We'll factor in catch rate, yards per catch, and vacated targets, and will assume no injuries.

In Scenario 1, Freiermuth regresses down from his 75.9% catch rate (6th overall in 2021) to Travis Kelce's (68.7%), and also drops from 8.3 to 8 yards per reception (maybe Ben wasn't so bad after all). If Freiermuth takes on just a quarter of Pittsburgh's 156 vacated targets, his target total would be 119, putting him in the same ballpark as Zach Ertz and Mike Gesicki (112 targets each last season). He would haul in about 82 receptions and 650 yards. If he takes on a third of the vacated targets, his target total would be 131, in the same ballpark as Travis Kelce (134 targets last season). That would be good for about 90 receptions and 720 yards. If he takes on 40% of the vacated targets, he'd see 141 targets, just twelve less than 2021 league-leading Mark Andrews. In that scenario, we could still expect Regressed Pat to catch 97 passes for 775 yards. Not a breakout, but not bad for playing worse at a higher volume- he's already easily knocking at the door of the 800 mark.

In Scenario 2, let's say Freiermuth again regresses to Kelce's catch rate, but improves his yards per reception thanks to a better quality of target. Let's say he gets 9 yards per catch, an average twenty-three tight ends reached in 2021. If he takes a quarter of the vacated targets, we could expect 82 receptions for 740 yards. At a third, we could expect 90 for 810. At 40%, we could expect 97 for 873. Consider a breakout likely.

In Scenario 3, let's say Freiermuth keeps his 2021 catch rate and and yards per catch. If he took a quarter of the vacated targets, he'd catch 90 of 119 targets for 747 yards. At a third, he'd catch 102 of 134 targets for 846 yards. At 40%, he'd catch 107 of 141 for 888 yards. He'd almost certainly break out.

And what if he keeps his stellar catch rate and improves on his yards per catch? I'll let you crunch the numbers.

All in all, there are very few situations that look as promising to a talented young TE as Pittsburgh's, and Freiermuth is a talented young TE. He seems poised to break out. When I watch him play, just based on his build, get-open ability, and great hands, I see shades of Travis Kelce. If Matt Canada can find a way to get this guy 50 more quality targets, I am positive that the sky is the limit.

Why wouldn't it happen?

We compared the guy to Travis Kelce, can't we just call it a wrap?

Nope. As much as I'd like to call it a done deal, there's still one massive question mark hanging over Pat Freiermuth's season. It's the quarterback position.

1. Quarterback-dependent position

Freiermuth's success will likely hinge on how frequently his quarterback can get him the ball.

As made evident in our breakout scenarios, the name of the game for tight end production is volume. Most tight ends don't get consistent downfield looks, and very few are the focal point of their offense. Their targets tend to be shorter and often have little RAC value, so unless you're Kyle Pitts, your yardage will end up being more a product of volume than your talent. In terms of yards gained, all 12 of 2021's top 12 tight ends had 90 or more targets. Moreover, every tight end to eclipse 100 targets finished top 10 in TE receiving yards, and only two of them missed the 800-yard mark.

In short, targets were the most accurate predictor of tight end success. What does this mean for Freiermuth? For one, it means he's hoping for 100+ targets. It also means a lot of his production is going to depend on his QB's target diet, and that he should be crossing his fingers that Kenny Pickett wins the job.

2. Presumed starter doesn't favor TEs

If Mitchell Trubisky earns the starting job over Kenny Pickett, I think we may have to wait a little longer to see a true "breakout" season from #88.

I have nothing against the NVP- I think he's unfairly lambasted for playing average in an awful situation, and I genuinely believe that with the right coach he has the potential to be a good starter in the league. Hell, he might be a good starter for the Steelers. That said, if you're a tight end, Trubisky leaves a lot to be desired in the target department. During his time as a starter, he tended to ignore tight ends, and their combined target share in his offenses trended downward over 4 years in Chicago (21.5% in 2017, 18.9% in 2018, 10.7% in 2019 and 19% in 2020). It is of note that Trubisky's longest season (15 games in 2019) had the lowest share of TE targets (10.7%), and that his career average comes in at just 16.8%. For perspective, Pat Freiermuth alone saw 11.9% of Pittsburgh's targets in 2021, and combined, Pittsburgh tight ends saw 18.8% of the team's targets.

What's worse is that the most targets any Bears TE got in a season during Trubisky's tenure was 76 (Trey Burton saw 76 in 2018 and Jimmy Graham saw 76 in 2020) and that stat includes targets they received from backup QBs. If you subtract Nick Foles and Chase Daniel's contributions, Burton had 68 targets in 2018 and Graham had just 29 in 2020. To be clear, Pat Freiermuth was targeted 79 times as an unproven rookie, good for 11 more targets than Trubisky has ever given a #1 tight end. Yikes. I guess you can argue Trubisky's TE avoidance may have had something to do with scheme and washed-up targets, but the stats are what they are.

If I were Pat Freiermuth, I would be banging the table for Kenny Pickett to start, and not just because Trubisky doesn't love tight ends.

Is there a silver lining?

Yes. The silver lining is named Kenny Pickett.
As we all know, younger QBs tend to rely on TE "security blanket" targets in their rookie years; this rule of thumb has recently held true for stars like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, as well as for Trubisky himself (see above; he targeted TEs most as a rookie). I have little doubt that this will hold true for Kenny Pickett too, especially given his reliance on TEs at the collegiate level. The NCAA doesn't track targets, so we can't compare him and Trubisky on a target-for-target basis, but just based on reception distribution, it's obvious Pickett's target diet was very TE-heavy. Last year, KP threw 67 of his 334 completions to TEs, with targets Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew finishing 3rd and 4th in team receptions respectively. This accounted for 20% of all completions in Pitt's offense, let alone targets.

If we compare these stats to those from Trubisky's final season at UNC, the difference is night and day. In 2016, Trubisky threw just 17 of his 304 completions to TEs, a measly 5.6% of completions. To reiterate, Pickett threw to tight ends 14.4% more than Trubisky did before heading to the NFL. While I don't think this disparity will continue at a clip of 14.4% in the pros (there's no way Pittsburgh's TEs get 33% of all targets), I do think we could see a modest bump from 2022's 18.8% to around 24-27% with Pickett under center. This would create an additional 45-55 tight end targets, with around 30-40 going to the ascending young Freiermuth, assuming he continues to take on a 63% share of TE receiving duties.

Who should start?

If you wear #88 on Sundays, you want Kenny Franchise under center; it's a clear path to 100+ targets and a breakout season. Ultimately, I think this is what we should want as fans, too.

On an individual level, I do really believe Pickett would be a better fit for Freiermuth in both the short and long-term, and it would be great to see them blossom into one of the league's top QB / tight end tandems. I do think Pickett would get Muth the ball a ton, and I'm excited to see it happen whenever he finally gets out there. Things have been kind of underwhelming at that position since Heath Miller (I mean no disrespect to Jesse and Vance), and having a versatile receiving TE would be a major advantage for this offense.

On an organizational level, Pickett starting would also mean the offseason has gone as planned. Pickett was lauded as the most pro-ready quarterback of any in this draft class, and Pittsburgh drafted him two rounds higher than any other rookie passer. They passed on more talented but less developed prospects, and as a fan, I have to believe that was done for a reason. If he sits all year, this pick might start to feel like a whiff. Plus, Trubisky is on a cheap contract and has been a backup before- no one, including him, is going to be surprised if he gets told to ride the pine.

Even so, I think it's more likely than not that Trubisky ends up the starter when it's all said and done. He's been getting starter reps since they signed him, and although it's not what we want, I think it might be the best move for the team. Even after adding two new starters, I would still be very wary of trotting a rookie out behind this offensive line. This is still the lowest-paid unit in the league, and maybe they don't want to David Carr their shiny new draft pick.

Maybe that's too cynical. Maybe I'm not giving Trubisky enough credit. Maybe I'm an armchair coach. These decisions ultimately come down to playing whoever puts the team in the best position to win. Would it be that far-fetched if the coaching staff decided to start the more experienced player? Who knows.

What's the bottom line?

It might not matter who starts.

156 vacated targets is no insignificant number, and Pat Freiermuth is no insignificant player. There's no immediate replacement for the JuJu/RayRay possession guy other than Pat and a 5'9 rookie (sorry, Calvin). Even if Trubisky starts, there's still a decent chance that the new offense will break his previous TE-avoidant tendencies.

So, all I will say is that I have high hopes for Pat Freiermuth. Will it end up being a top-ten campaign? Maybe. Maybe not. Whatever happens, I'm willing to bet we'll see great things from #88 in the near future.

Lastly, there's one final question to answer:

What do you think?


The opinions shared here are not those of the editorial staff of Behind the Steel Curtain or SB Nation. These posts are not approved in any way by the editorial staff of this web site.