Steelers ‘Freak of All Freaks’ Sleeper is Darnell Washington


Pittsburgh Steelers HC Mike Tomlin during team warm-ups.

It’s tough to imagine a 6-foot-7 guy being a sleeper, but that’s exactly what he is. Projected as a first-round pick, coaches and general managers all slept on Darnell Washington who slipped into the third round of the 2023 NFL draft and landed right into the lap of the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 93. While the tight end was more of a luxury than a need, adding Washington to their already stellar rookie class (Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr.) was too rich to pass up.

We’ll have a clearer idea by midseason if the loss of 31 other teams is Pittsburgh’s gain but on the surface, they got a steal. “Darnell Washington is the freak of all freaks in this class, the Steelers got a playmaker,” an NFL personnel executive told Heavy’s Matt Lombardo.

While freak can have a negative connotation in some circles, it’s a perfect compliment when it comes to describing the rare physical specimen that is Darnell Washington. Hey hits two historical marks at the NFL Scouting Combine: 11-inch hands (second-largest) and 83 3/4 wingspan (largest). His impressive change of direction resulted in a 4.08 20-yard shuttle, good for first at tight end and third in all positions.

“He’s such a big guy,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said, “… but he moves so well for such a big man.”

Mike Tomlin knows exactly what he has in his rookie tight end. He studied Washington closely during the pre-draft process and brought him to Pittsburgh for a Top 30 visits.

“The awesome thing about him besides his measurables is his mindset,” Tomlin said. “Here’s a guy that I think maybe has ‘sixth offensive lineman’ on his license plate. He embraces the things that come with being who he is, and knowledge of self and embracing that I think is one of the things that make him attractive, besides the unique physical traits and the things that he’s been able to accomplish. The mindset, the willingness, too, is equally exciting.”

How Darnell Washington Fits in the Steelers’ Offense

Not only does Darnell Washington have a nose for blocking, but he’ll also add another option for Kenny Pickett in the passing game. He has to be salivating.

Utilized primarily as a blocker, Washington proved in his final collegiate season that he’s more than that. “Washington not only has the imposing physical presence to be a red zone weapon, but he also showed the ability to stretch the field in the Bulldogs’ passing game by hauling in three deep passes in 2023,” Lombardo wrote. “Pairing Washington, who caught 28 passes for 454 yards and 2 touchdowns during the 2022 campaign, opposite Pat Freiermuth, added another security blanket with big-play ability to second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett’s arsenal.”

Veteran Zach Gentry will likely head into minicamp as second on the tight end depth chart, but by the time the official season roster is released, it’s likely we’ll see Gentry sent down a peg. Canada alluded to second-year tight end Connor Heyward moving to fullback.

Of course, once the offense rolls out and develops into the season, we could see more two- and three-tight end sets. They used more in 2022 (12 personnel on 26 percent of first down) than they had in previous years. With the addition of Washington, expect that number to increase.