You know, football is a fascinating game simply because of how interdependent one position is to the other. The specializations within each position group lend themselves to unique usages and as such you get a game that has different schemes and styles. Now, hyper focus that idea onto the Steelers tight end room.
Pat Freiermuth is a great receiver when split out but a questionable blocker. Darnell Washington is a elite blocker that has some route stiffness when split out wide. Zach Gentry and Connor Heyward are different guys entirely. But Washington and Freiermuth should be more intertwined than you think.
The reason is that Washington might steal Gentry’s snaps from last year. In doing so, Freiermuth is going to be playing much less in-line and far more in the slot. But truth be told, isn’t that what the Steelers want? The psyche behind drafting Washington is not that tough to understand once you dive into the metrics on Freiermuth in the slot.
According to Dwain McFarland, Freiermuth ranked second in the NFL by delivering an explosive reception on 25 percent of his targets, only behind George Kittle of the 49ers. More importantly, when you dive into the other stats that matter, he’s top-10 in nearly every single one. Freiermuth ranked 7th in yards per route run and 9th in YAC over expected. That’s part of why he has the ability to take the next leap. Pat Freiermuth is already an efficient player while creating more out of nothing after the catch, too.
However, Freiermuth only played the 19th most snaps in the NFL last year among tight ends in the slot. Let me try to show you the difference in production and efficiency for Freiermuth from the slot. His yards per route run in the slot was 2.28 yards per route run, second-best in the NFL behind only Travis Kelce. Meanwhile, his inline yards per route run was 1.46, which barely cracks the top 10.
In comes Washington, who the team needs to be the in-line blocker that is a plus in the run game. The move of Freiermuth to the slot more and Washington in-line will increase this team’s 12 personnel usage and for good reason. They will be able to spread teams out more effectively and create a more diverse passing game with bigger bodies for smaller defensive backs to guard.
But if you are looking at Freiermuth’s production and impressed, you should be. He is a heavily targeted player and efficient as one. Freiermuth’s full potential is not as a dual-roaming tight end, though. He’s a traditional Y or F far more than he is a guy who sticks his hand into the ground on 60 percent of his snaps. In the vein of the bigger receivers, that’s who he is at this point. That’s the opposite of what Washington is, though. He’s a throwback that is reminiscent of Mercedes Lewis is a lot of ways.
These two guys should complement one another’s game extremely well. So, yes, 12 personnel is probably coming. And moreover, the team needs to use the weapons they have at their disposal to unlock each other at a much better rate. Freiermuth and Washington should be an example of that symbiosis on the field.