They might not be big names within the grand scheme of the NFL overall, but for the Pittsburgh Steelers, second-year running back Jaylen Warren and third-year tight end Pat Freiermuth are two key pieces for the Steelers entering the 2023 season on an offense seemingly loaded top to bottom overall.
Warren looks like a legitimate change-of-pace running back that is a very solid complementary piece to third-year running back Najee Harris in a power rushing attack that the Steelers aim to lean on, while Freiermuth is a dependable middle-of-the-field threat with elite-level hands overall.
Still, the two largely fly under the radar.
That’s not the case in the world of ESPN’s Mina Kimes and The Ringer’s Benjamin Solak. In a recent episode of The Mina Kimes Show, Kimes and Solak highlighted Warren and Freiermuth as under the radar names to know for the 2023 season.
“Everybody knows he [Freiermuth] is good, but I don’t think folks realize that he was like the second-highest target getter for Kenny Pickett down the stretch last year. He was getting more consistent targets, more consistent production per game than George Pickens was,” Solak said of Freiermuth, highlighting him at the tight end position alongside names like Cleveland’s David Njoku and Tennessee’s Chigoziem Okonkwo.
“Talk about a guy that catches everything. Ludicrously tough over the middle of the field. And then a legitimate plus as a blocker. I don’t think he’s perfect; he has some bad reps, for sure, like young tight ends typically tend to have. But he is a guy that is legitimately impactful in terms of when he gets hands on a linebacker and then can hang when he’s on a defensive lineman. … Watching him reminds me of watching young [Dallas] Goedert.”
That’s some high praise of Freiermuth from Solak. It’s not much of a surprise overall as Freiermuth is a very good tight end overall. He has great hands, runs good routes and is as steady as they come, especially in the middle of the field. He’s a tough player overall, too, putting his body on the line to make a big catch in the high-traffic area that is the middle of the field.
Freiermuth has been targeted heavily in his first two seasons in the NFL, generating 177 targets, including an impressive 98 targets last season, missing one game in the process. He’s in line for a monster third season in the NFL and second season overall working with quarterback Kenny Pickett.
However, one area of Solak’s praise that doesn’t exactly ring true is Freiermuth as a blocker. It’s a stretch to call him a “plus” as blocker right now. The Steelers brought in rookie Darnell Washington to lighten the load on Freiermuth as a blocker, in large part because he really struggles in-line. When he’s on the perimeter though, he can dominate small defensive backs. He really struggles against defensive linemen and edge rushers though.
As for Warren, it’s not really a surprise that Solak and Kimes highlighted the Steelers’ second-year running back, especially after he ripped off a 62-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in Week Two of the preseason.
“He [Warren] is your King of running back replacement value where Najee Harris is the early drafted player, everyone is mad at the Steelers for drafting a running back in the first round. He’s not that efficient on a per-snap basis, negative EPA per attempt. His success rate is under 40 percent, and then there’s this undrafted free agent behind him in Jaylen Warren,” Solak said. “He can scoot, can break a tackle. Nice contact balance, low to the ground. … All the numbers bros, all the data geeks are like Jaylen Warren’s the best running back in the Steelers’ backfield.
“I think there’s a lot of defenses adjusting how they play when 22 is back there compared to when Warren is back there, but Warren can absolutely play.”
Warren can absolutely play, that is for sure. He’s a good combination of speed and overall explosiveness, and he can break tackles and run hard between the tackles.
He’s a great change-of-pace piece for the Steelers to have behind Harris, but as Solak pointed out, there’s a change in the way defenses defend the Steelers offense when Warren is on the field compared to when Harris is on the field, which has led to more success at times for Warren.
He’s facing lighter boxes, more space overall and sees more yards per carry before contact than Harris does. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because he’s the better running back than Harris.
Regardless, Warren is an under the radar running back that appears poised to burst onto the scene in 2023, even if that means he’s not going to take over the starting role in Pittsburgh.
On an offense loaded with big names currently in Harris, Pickett, George Pickens, Diontae Johnson and more, names like Freiermuth and Warren are under the radar, at least in the eyes of Kimes and Solak.