Coming out of Michigan State as a sixth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, current Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Connor Heyward had a long road ahead of him entering the NFL, as far as determining his role at the next level.
Standing just 6-foot, 230 pounds, Heyward was rather undersized for a true tight end in the NFL. A former running back in college at Michigan State, Heyward made the transition to tight end for his final season with the Spartans, ultimately leading to him being drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round, reuniting with his older brother, Cameron, while giving the Steelers a versatile chess piece offensively.
Initially, it seemed like Heyward was best suited for that H-back style role, but the Steelers were adamant about him being a tight end, placing him under the guidance of tight ends coach Alfredo Roberts.
Though the transition was rough at times, Heyward came on strong late in the TE3 role, making some major plays in the passing game while holding his own as a blocker, especially on the split-zone flow blocks to the backside, causing him to see the field consistently down the stretch.
While he is a true football player willing to do whatever is asked of him, Heyward was largely trying to learn on the fly at the tight end position in his rookie season while being thrown to the wolves at the pro level. To his credit, he handled the adversity well and thrived, setting up him for a potentially strong second season now that he believes he understands the game and the position more.
“I feel like I did well in college, but I didn’t know why and what I was doing,” Heyward said to The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly in an article published Wednesday. “Now I am just understanding the game so much more and playing so much faster and being able to use my leverage and use other things that guys my size aren’t able to do. Just being able to cut, keep the edge guys on defense on their heels. It makes it easier for me and helps the guys in the run game.”
As a former running back, Heyward had a general feel for how to set up blocks overall, at least at the college ranks. Once he got to the pros though, it was a bit of a different challenge overall. Down the stretch in his rookie season, Heyward figured out the nuances of the position, from hand usage as a blocker, to body positioning against defenders and more, allowing him to utilize his physical traits to thrive in space as a blocker in the NFL.
Though he may be undersized at the position, he never used it as a crutch for what he could or couldn’t do, instead adjusting his game to figure out ways to win, whether that was using his size to gain leverage against bigger, stronger players, or using his high football IQ to adjust his target as a blocker on the fly, climbing to the next level to put a hat on a defender to spring a runner.
He might not have the dominant physical traits that are ideal at the position, but he has a strength between the ears that helps him win where others don’t. That’s incredibly valuable moving forward, especially as he continues to learn the ins and outs of the position at the pro level, carving out a true role in the Steel City offensively.