The 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers were a high-flying group. The team started out red hot, the last unbeaten team as they pushed out to an 11-0 start thanks to a tremendous pass offense. The Steelers faded a bit at the finish, ending the regular season 12-4 before falling to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round. In that game, the Steelers lost in a 48-37 track meet.
Ben Roethlisberger is back, as are the primary passing weapons. The Steelers added the best running back in the draft in Najee Harris, and figure to be making a run again in 2021. In addition to questions about the line, it’s fair to wonder what role the Steelers’ tight ends will play in the offense in 2021.
The Steelers threw the ball 656 times in 2020. Roethlisberger threw it 608 times in his 15 games, tied for the second-most of his career. While all three receivers – Diontae Johnson, Juju Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool – saw more than 100 targets, a big part of the passing attack was the work of veteran tight end Eric Ebron.
Ebron spent his first four years in Detroit before moving to the Colts for the 2018-2019 season. He signed with the Steelers in 2020, seeing 91 targets in 15 games. He caught 56 passes for 556 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough to finish as TE14. With the gang back together, it’s reasonable to see Ebron winding it back, too. His ADP of TE23, however, suggests trepidation. That’s likely due in part to increased competition.
While Harris was the Steelers’ First Round selection, he wasn’t the only rookie playmaker the team added in the 2021 NFL Draft. With the No. 55 overall pick in the second round, the Steelers snagged tight end Pat Freiermuth out of Penn State. While Kyle Pitts got a lot of the attention, Freiermuth was largely regarded as the No. 2 option at the position.
In three seasons with Penn State, Freiermuth caught 92 passes for 1,185 yards and 16 TDs. In just four games in 2020, Freiermuth snagged 23 passes, an average of nearly six per game. His selection caused a buzz with dynasty players as he’s been a trendy pick in the second or third round of rookie drafts. Most suspect he’s the future at tight end for the Steelers, possibly as early as 2021.
The first question is whether the Steelers will throw as much in 2021. While the team threw a lot in 2018, when Roethlisberger set his career-high of 675 attempts, the Steelers have their best running back in several seasons with Harris. He’s also a dual-threat. Harris caught 80 passes in college, including 43 in 2020 as Alabama won a National Championship.
In 2020, the Steelers targeted running backs just 80 times, including just 43 for lead back James Conner, who mustered only 721 yards rushing. Harris profiles to have a better season, and despite the questions about the line the Steelers appear to be focused on having a more balanced offense. As a result, I think the team throws 600-650 times with the 17-game season, a modest decrease from the 2020 pace.
With Johnson, Smith-Schuster, and Claypool back, alongside James Washington, it makes sense for receivers to account for 400-450 targets. In 2020, those four combined for 437 targets. That combined with a potential uptick in targets for backs doesn’t leave much for other receivers. In 2020, Ebron and Vance McDonald saw a combined 121 targets. I think it’s possible in 2021, Ebron and Freiermuth end up closer to 110.
Ebron was able to return high-end TE2 value thanks to 91 targets, the fourth-best on the team. With Freiermuth more of a weapon than McDonald and Harris more of a passing game asset than Steelers’ backs in 2020, that could be a big ask. I think Ebron sees closer to 60 targets, catching 35-40 passes for about 450 yards and three touchdowns. Freiermuth is the tight end I want long-term in Pittsburgh, but for 2021 I don’t want to rely on starting either option.
Matthew Fox is a die-hard NFL fan and Broncos’ homer. He’s a member of the FSWA. You can find more from him on Twitter @knighthawk7734 or as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast, a part of the Campus2Canton Network.