Can former PSU standout Freiermuth be Steelers' starting TE as rookie? Blocking is key

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth (88) during an NFL football practice, Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

During the early days of training camp, the focus of Pittsburgh Steelers fans has been on rookie running back Najee Harris, who is already generating buzz as an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate.

If the first five days of camp are any indication, however, the attention could quickly turn to another member of the 2021 rookie class.

The hype train for tight end Pat Freiermuth hasn't been on the same level as Harris, but he's been impressive since arriving this spring as a second-round pick out of Penn State.

Harris is the only rookie listed as a starter on the initial depth chart, but it's quite possible Freiermuth could join him in the starting lineup at some point this season. And coach Mike Tomlin knows exactly how that might transpire.

"Every time he makes a good catch, coach [Tomlin] says, 'That's good. Can you block?'" general manager Kevin Colbert said Tuesday morning before practice.

It might be a slight oversimplification of things, but it stands to reason Freiermuth's ability to run block is the only thing standing between him and a starting job, or at the very least considerable playing time.

Eric Ebron is the returning starter and was a productive pass catcher last season. Ebron, however, offers very little in terms of the running game.

Freiermuth also comes with a reputation of being an elite pass-catching tight end, but if he proves he can be an effective blocker, his snaps will increase because the Steelers are attempting to reinvigorate the offense with an improved running game.

"I was drafted because I could do both things," Freiermuth said following Tuesday's practice at Heinz Field. "Obviously, it's kind of hard to show you can block with [only] helmets on. My job is to make catches and to block defensive ends and linebackers, and I know that. I've had a good first couple of days of camp, but I know the real works starts (Wednesday) when the pads go on. It's up to me to show I'm not a one-trick pony."

In the days to come, the fans and the coaches, including new tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts, will be closely monitoring his progress.

"His college tape was enough to let me know that he has the want-to and the willingness to be an efficient blocker," Robert said. "Can we all improve? Absolutely. It's something that he wants to take great pride in. All of those guys want to be really efficient. I'm trying to get all three of them on the grass at the same time. Somebody's got to do some heavy lifting. So it starts tomorrow when the pads come on. You can start to really continue to build and put layers on your game. That is something I know Pat and Ebron and Zach [Gentry] and all those guys are really working toward pass pro, run game."

A new direction under Canada: Even Ebron, who has never taken to blocking, is being asked to change his stripes in his eighth NFL season. It remains to be seen if he is capable of adding it to his skill set, but he might not have a choice in the matter with the direction of the new offense under Matt Canada.

"I feel like that's something we were all terrible at last year. As you saw, there was a lull in the running game," Ebron said. "As a complete unit — offensive line and tight ends — I feel like we should all do better. If you want to get paid, you have to be able to block. That's a pivotal part of our focus this year."

Roberts came up with a nickname for the tight end room this year. It's the "Bad Ass" room, and he's hoping a little change in demeanor can help change the culture of the group.

"Tight ends, we should be bad asses," Ebron said. "We should be able to block bad-ass. We should be able to run bad-ass routes, and we should be able to score on anyone in a bad-ass way. That's the mantra for our room."

Starting label might not matter: Truth be told, the starting label might not matter all that much. If Ebron and Freiermuth are effective in their roles, there are distinct advantages to using two-tight end formations, especially if one of them can block. It introduces play-action passing into the equation, and it can potentially lead to mismatches in the passing game.

"We play really well together and feed off each other's energy," Freiermuth said. "He's going to be the loud guy who gets the fans going. I'm just going to go out there and make plays and keeps quiet. Opposites attract, and that's what's kind of going on right now."

Only time (and run-blocking ability) will tell who plays the most when the regular season gets here.

"Having Freiermuth here will take some of the lifting (away from Ebron)," Roberts said. "And those guys together I think have an opportunity. I want to use the word dynamic in the sense of them working together and fitting into the thing that we asked them to do offensively.

"I think it gives you the flexibility because we're so talented that we added some pieces in our run game. That's going make it difficult for a team to defend because we have the ability to run the ball really well, and then with the skill set of Pat and Ebron in these early camp [practices], it looks like we're going to be able to do some things, as we still have a Hall of Famer in Ben [Roethlisberger] that's going to be able to dial it up."