Here is the next in a position-by-position series on the Steelers at the conclusion of the 2022 season as they head into the start of the NFL free agent period, which opens March 15.
TIGHT END (3)
Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, Connor Heyward
(free agent scorecard: 1 unrestricted, Zach Gentry)
A LAST LOOK AT 2022
Pat Freiermuth finished second on the team with 63 receptions in 2022, just three more than he had as a rookie in 2021.
But that doesn't tell the full story. While Freiermuth averaged 8.3 yards per catch as a rookie, he increased that to a healthy 11.6 yards per catch in his second season, gaining nearly 250 yards through the air more than he did in his first season.
Freiermuth's touchdown production dipped from seven as a rookie to two in 2022, but that was more a product of the Steelers' run-heavy scheme than it was any kind of regression from the second-year tight end.
He also improved his blocking from his rookie season, though that's still not his strongest attribute. He'll continue to get better at that as he ages and gains strength.
His 63 catches were the sixth-most among NFL tight ends, while his 724 receiving yards also ranked sixth at the position. He also became just the second tight end in NFL history to catch at least 60 passes in each of his first two seasons.
This happened despite Freiermuth and Zach Gentry effectively splitting starting duties at the position. Freiermuth out-snapped Gentry, 743-577, but Gentry actually started 13 games compared to eight for Freiermuth. Obviously, there were games where both started when the Steelers were in a 12-personnel grouping.
Gentry is a solid blocker, using his 6-foot-8, 280-pound frame to screen off edge rushers. In the passing game, he produced 19 catches for 132 yards, averaging 5.4 yards after the catch as most of his receptions were close to the line of scrimmage.
Heyward had an interesting rookie season after the Steelers selected the former Michigan State star in the sixth round of the draft.
At 6-foot, 230 pounds, he looks much different than Gentry. More of a true H-back, he should be viewed more as an offensive chess piece capable of playing tight end or fullback than as an in-line blocker.
But he showed some capability to make explosive plays, posting a 45-yard catch-and-run in Week 6 against Tampa Bay that was the Steelers' second-longest pass play of the season, while breaking off a 21-yard run in Week 16 against the Raiders.
Heyward also contributed nine special teams tackles on 284 snaps on that unit, proving to be a valuable asset there, as well.
ONE STAT THAT STOOD OUT
Steelers quarterbacks completed 94 of their 138 passes targeted at the team's tight ends in 2022, a 68.1 percent completion percentage. They completed 62.3 percent of their passes to non-tight ends. Despite the higher completion percentage, Steelers tight ends averaged 10.9 yards per catch, well above the team's average of 10.1 yards per reception.
LOOK AHEAD TO 2023
Freiermuth should continue to emerge as a star, not just for the Steelers, but in the league as a whole, becoming one of the next generation of great pass-catching tight ends in the NFL.
Typically, tight ends don't hit their prime until they're 27 or 28 years old, meaning the best is yet to come for the 2021 second-round draft pick.
Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast
And Heyward's ability as an offensive chess piece is interesting and should continue to grow, as well.
What happens with Gentry becomes the big question. The former fifth-round draft pick in 2019 has begun to blossom as a player after suffering through two tough seasons because of injuries to start his career.
If he isn't re-signed, the Steelers will obviously have a hole to fill on their roster since Heyward isn't going to be asked to block as Gentry did so often, and the Steelers might not be prepared to have Freiermuth see his snap-count increase to 800-plus plays next season.
Finding a capable replacement for Gentry in the draft also isn't easy. Most college tight ends haven't done a lot of the in-line blocking the Steelers asked of Gentry the past two seasons.