PITTSBURGH — One of the first questions that came to mind for Pittsburgh Steelers fans after the team drafted gigantic Georgia tight end Darnell Washington in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft was what that selection meant for the future of 2022 rookie Connor Heyward.
In fact, it was one of the first questions poised to Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada immediately after the team announced the selection. His answer, was that Heyward will likely play more of an H-back or fullback role going forward.
“Yeah, I mean, that’s probably his body type, right?” Canada said. “What he can do, and we’ve got him as a tight end, but the things he can do, the way we can move him around, maybe not calling him a fullback, but I think his skill set fits that role.”
So far, that has come to fruition, with Heyward lining up as an inline tight end, a flexed-out tight end, an H-back, a fullback and as a traditional running back already during OTAs.
“Just being in different alignments, being in the backfield, as well, not just in a tight end position always, it’s one of the things that a normal tight end doesn’t do,” Heyward said. “Position flexibility is something that’s new and one of the things that are different compared to last year.”
Of course, playing different positions isn’t new for Heyward. He played running back in college at Michigan State before moving to tight end and his experience with multiple positions goes back even farther than that.
“Little league, I played running back,” Heyward said. “In high school, I was a receiver and a safety, and then a running back in college before tight end. Just being able to plug and play, whenever my number is called, being able to make the most of my plays.”
Heyward is now essentially learning routes and blocking assignments from four different places, but he said the study work has not been difficult in his second season in the same offense.
“I wouldn’t say it makes my playbook time or my study time hard,” he said. “If you want to be out there, you’ve got to put in the work and know what’s going on. I feel like I’ve done that and made those jumps and strides. Last year, I felt like I knew the offense, but it’s your rookie year. A lot of things are going on. This year, I feel like I’ll be extremely comfortable.”
Heyward made significant strides over the course of that rookie season. He played just one snap of offense in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. But by the end of the season, he was a trusted part of the offense. He scored his first touchdown in Atlanta in Week 12, had a 21-yard, game-sealing carry against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 15 and caught three passes in the final game of the season against the Cleveland Browns.
There’s a reason that he’s played so many positions. Heyward doesn’t have the height of a traditional tight end, with his 5-foot-11 1/8 measurement at the combine scoring a 0.01 out of 10 on the Relative Athletic Score matrix. But Heyward has above-average speed, is a solid ball-carrier and has great hands. It’s an interesting and unusual combination of skills, but that’s part of the reason that he played two positions in college and fell into the sixth round of the 2022 NFL Draft.
With the Steelers adding Washington to the mix, they now have a big, strong blocking type that can also be a dangerous receiver in the rookie, in addition to an already high-end receiver in Pat Freiermuth — who could be made better by the addition of Washington. That is freeing up Heyward to be the wild card of the unit, and his ability to line up everywhere can help the Steelers use multiple tight ends without giving away their intentions with their personnel.
“I think we could all be out there and one time if we had to be, all four of us,” Heyward said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how we use all four of us. We have different skillsets. That’d be really cool.”
That flexibility in personnel and the ability to disguise intentions from formation is something that other players on the offense have talked about, as well. Wide receiver Allen Robinson II feels the team has three receivers that can all line up anywhere to confuse defenses. With multiple different kinds of tight ends added to the mix, it’s going to be a lot harder to pin down what Canada is thinking just based on the number of receivers, backs and tight ends on the field.
“I feel like I’ve been moved around,” Heyward said. “Obviously, you can move some of the receivers around. Calvin [Austin III] is a mismatch, as well,” Heyward said. “Some of our plays have changed. We’ve added some stuff to it. We’ve also taken some stuff out. So it’s like good and bad. I’m looking forward to this year.”