2022 Training Camp Notes: Close Games
For the remainder of the preseason, we’ll provide a position-by-position, player-by-player recap of what I saw during training camp and Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 preseason games. This list is based on the 16 public camp practices and pre-season games I have watched so far and is based solely on their performance at that time and does not necessarily represent my feelings for the players as a whole or during the regular season.
With that in mind, let’s continue with the tight ends.
Connor Heyward: All the talk when Heyward was drafted focused on big brother Cam. One summer and there aren’t many left focusing on the human-interest story. They focus on the quality player Heyward could be. He certainly has a different body type and style than the norm, which makes him hard to judge against the rest of the group. It’s faster and snaps to the top of its road better than the others, but of course it does. He is smaller. He struggles as an online blocker because, of course, he does. He is smaller.
Heyward has really been used as a stretch all summer long. This is the position group he worked with and the position he played during camp. Pittsburgh understands his size limitations and has used him a lot in a two-point/Y-off position, but he did receive a fair amount of work online. The results there weren’t pretty and he struggled to maintain blocks. Late in camp with FB Derek Watt injured, Heyward received a handful of reps as a fullback, but overall he’s a tight end. Heyward and Watt play two different positions.
Heyward had a history of two camps. The first half was a bit disappointing, an ineffective player who dropped too much and mostly worked under it. But he caught fire on the stretch, catching his last 14 targets and making plays in the seam. Overall, Heyward is a natural football receiver with soft hands and a good radius to make up for his lack of size. He made harder fight holds on the stretch and runs solid routes, especially well in Game 1 against Seattle.
He finished the camp tied for the second most targets and had the second most receptions, despite averaging just over five yards per reception. Some of that can be put down to seven shots and he caught four total touchdowns at camp.
Although listed as a tight end, it’s unfair to compare him to Freiermuth, Gentry or the rest of the group. He’s a different player who wins and loses in different ways. But he’s an interesting element in Canada’s offense with his versatility and his ability to field anywhere on the pitch, something he’s done consistently over the summer. Pittsburgh will be a massive/naked offense and Heyward could definitely benefit from that as a first option in the apartment. Heyward is a player from another era, a new-age Larry Centers or John L. Williams, who would have thrived in the ’80s or early ’90s. But there’s a role and a niche for him beyond that. to be a solid special team, of which he showed flashes of pre-season action.
Camp rating: B+
Pat Freiermuth: It was a quiet first half of camp for Freiermuth, suffering a hamstring injury on day two and not fully returning until the penultimate week of camp. The rule of thumb is that hamstring injuries take about a week longer to come back fully than you might think. But Freiermuth ended camp on a high, catching thirteen passes over the last four practices and ending camp with 20 targets. He continued to be stable and reliable, catching 80% of his targets. Since 2015, Freiermuth has two of the three highest catch rates of guys with more than 20 targets in camp. Savage.
He makes tough catches underneath and will largely work in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s role as his quarterback’s best friend. But this attack seems determined to put Freiermuth in midfield more often this year, taking advantage of the real estate between numbers previously skipped by Ben Roethlisberger over the past two seasons. Freiermuth caught 24 yards from Kenny Pickett in Saturday’s win over Jacksonville, tying his longest reception as a rookie. In camp, he had several catches over 15 yards in the seam. Don’t expect him to be Kyle Pitts, but his yards per strike should hover around ten instead of the 8.3 he finished last season.
Although he is healthy, I haven’t learned much about him as an online blocker. It’s an area he needed to improve after his rookie season and I’m not sure how he progressed. I’d like to think he’s improved, but I haven’t been able to make that decision yet.
Injuries are always frustrating and cloud my assessments. But Freiermuth is ready for the first week and should play a key role in this attack. His camp was fine and I can live with that. The biggest encouraging news for him, and potential fantasy owners, is the team’s willingness to lead him vertically.
Camp rating: B
Zack Gentry: While it was disappointing not to learn so much about Freiermuth, Gentry took it to a different level. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Gentry is only 25 and hasn’t played much football, but his scouting report is relatively simple and predictable on the right. Big tight end blocking the race. Fin.
But I was hoping for more information on this summer, his first on solid ground after fighting for his roster every year before this point. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of takeout. He missed a handful of training and the pre-season opener with an unknown injury, but he’s fully healthy now. His camp stats are calm, catching just 11 passes for 79 yards and a touchdown. He made an impressive catch in the left seam for a 20-yard catch against Myles Jack early in camp. There is intrigue in him being more of a vertical/seam runner but his role in this offense remains primarily blocking. He had a little more trouble than expected behind the backers, but he will fulfill his role as the team’s No. 2 tight tackle very well, not to mention their funny new man.
Camp Rating: C
Kevin Rader: Rader is a poor man’s gentleman. Not as big but a good blocker and he offers more value on special teams. It is strong and rambling and hunts well on the cover unit. But he’s the football version of an AAAA baseball player. Right on the fringe of the 53-man practice squad and unable to fully overcome that hump.
Going into camp, his hands looked better than previous summers and he made some impressive catches over his head, including one from over 20 yards down the field in a two-minute drill. But those plays dwindled and his suspect hands returned, leading the side with four total downs. Last year he had two and in 2019 he tied for the lead with five. Aside from that downfield catch, he was an inferior option on the flat and ultimately averaged a paltry five yards per catch. There’s not much more to say about Rader that hasn’t already been discussed, so we’ll leave it at that. He still has a good chance of staying on the practice squad as the team’s No. 4 tight end.
Camp Rating: C-
Jace Sternberger: A former third-round pick, Sternberger attended this year’s camp. He’s a good athlete with a brilliance to break apart at the top of his game. He was healthy and available from start to finish and appeared to have a good level of basic conditioning.
But beyond that, there wasn’t a ton to get excited about. Sternberger’s blocking was average at best and his hands were suspect, dropping too many things that hit him in the hands. It wasn’t always obvious in team drills, just an official fall (but probably one or two more), but it happened in 7v7 sessions and even on air. He just didn’t catch the ball cleanly or consistently enough for a so-called tight end. He barely caught more than half of his targets (13/24) and his play during games was flat, although he had a nice special teams tackle against Jacksonville. But Rader is the best option as a blocker and special team member and Sternberger hasn’t done enough to stay.
Camp Rating: C-
Previous camp notes