Why the Steelers simply could not pass on TE Darnell Washington in the third round

Steelers, Darnell Washington
Steelers, Darnell Washington / Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETWORK

When they called the name, the Pittsburgh Steelers third-round pick seemed like a slight head-scratcher at first glance, but when you think about it, it was a smart decision. Somehow, Darnell Washington had lasted all the way until the 93rd pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and Omar Khan couldn't help but pull the trigger.

The Steelers took Washington, the tight end from Georgia. At first glance, you might think, why would they take Washington when they have Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry, and Conner Heyward? For starters, he’s 6’7'' and 264 lbs -- very similar to a tight end the Steelers had many years ago, Eric Green.

Steelers thought process behind Darnell Washington pick

The rationale for this pick is threefold. With the Steelers first pick, they took Broderick Jones, the huge tackle from Georgia. He will immediately impact Pittsburgh's offensive line, as they now have a big guy that will open up running lanes for Najee Harris.

Then with their third pick Washington, who was projected to be a potential first-rounder, was still on the board. Despite having a good tight end with Pat Freiermuth, they wanted to get a second tight end that will be a more effective blocker, especially on running plays.

They can line him up to the left of Jones, run Najee to their side, and they will be knocking defenders onto their backsides. Taking Washington is almost akin to getting two offensive linemen, except with Washington there is a fringe benefit.        

Washington's skill set is outstanding

The fringe benefit, in this case, is that he can also be a receiver when needed as well. If Pickett gets in trouble, he can quickly drop down the field as an outlet receiver if required. There are not many receivers that are 6’7”. A guy as big as Washington makes a great target to throw to. Good luck to the defenders that must tackle him.

He can just bowl over a single defender once in motion; defenses will need to gang-tackle him. Plus, he can help clear a lane for Najee on a screen pass which will help work Najee back into the passing game, something the Steelers got away from in 2022. Frankly, he will not only help with the running game, but he can also be an additional weapon for Kenny Pickett.

Thus far, the Steelers offense already has Diontae Johnson, George Pickens, Allen Robinson, and Calvin Austin, respectively, and Pat Freiermuth, and he will now have Washington. For Kenny to be successful in his second season, Pickett needed pass protection and weapons going into 2023. The Steelers managed to accomplish that on two picks with a high-value player they essentially stole, as they managed to do with Pat Freiermuth in 2021.

Darnell Washington will act as Freiermuth insurance

The Steelers took Washington to hedge their bets. Pat Freiermuth is in the middle of his rookie contract and will play the 2023 and 2024 seasons, and now they have Washington, who will be in his first season.

Thus, if the Steelers can not re-ink a contract with Freiermuth and he goes elsewhere in two seasons, the Steelers still have Washington for two more seasons. Plus, it gives Washington two years to develop, and when Freiermuth’s contract is up, they can decide based on how far Washington progresses.

If Washington is a big impact player, perhaps Freiermuth becomes expendable, especially if Freiermuth asks for a huge payday at his next contract. Or if Washington is not the player they expected, they could opt to re-sign a deal with Freiermuth, and Washington could become expendable; thus, the Steelers gave themselves options regarding free agency. Perhaps they can keep both even when Washington's contract expires. We will have two years to see how it all pans out.

Next. Grading each Steelers first-round draft pick in the Tomlin era. dark

The Steelers draft has been phenomenal, and it will be exciting to see how it all translates when they step onto the field in August.