LATROBE, Pa. -- At 6-foot-8, 262 pounds, Steelers rookie tight end Zach Gentry wasn't expected to light defenses on fire with blazing speed. That's not what he was drafted to do, and it's not a skill set he's suddenly going to add at the pro level.
That said, Gentry is expected to catch some passes. He's expected to block, to get that massive frame low and control NFL-level defenders. On those fronts, Gentry admits the NFL has presented its challenges in the early going.
"There's obviously a learning curve when you're first coming in, especially with a guy as tall as me," Gentry was telling me after Day 6 of training camp at Saint Vincent College. "So I've really had to focus on getting my pad level down and firing out ... I know everybody always says the same thing, but it's the speed and physicality. It's just the next step up in every single way. People are not lying when they say that, for sure."
While Gentry has felt the growing pains, it's not all negative for him by any means. At the end of practice Thursday, he caught a high pass down the seam from Devlin Hodges and maintained possession as he crashed into the end zone. That is what he's expected to do, and with the help of veterans Vance McDonald and Xavier Grimble, Gentry feels those impact plays will occur more frequently as camp progresses.
He told me all about it:
In the end, of course, that one play won't be enough for Gentry. He'll need to show improvements and continue to evolve if he hopes to become a key piece and contributor at the Steelers' thinnest position on offense.
And that's exactly what he intends to do.
"First couple practices, like I said, I needed to get my pads lower," Gentry said. "I needed to kind of get used to getting down low and firing off a little harder. [But I'm] definitely getting better at that every day."
Gentry's play thus far in camp has left plenty to be desired. But I loved the way he finished practice Thursday and everything he said in the aftermath. His mind and his work ethic seem to be in the right place, and McDonald is seen working with him and coaching him up on a regular basis.
Some context is also important here. The Steelers don't expect or need Gentry to become Travis Kelce. McDonald is the No. 1 tight end, and that is not up for debate. What they need is a Matt Spaeth/Jesse James type, and Gentry does seem capable of reaching that level. There is still work to be done, but I'm certainly not making any final judgments regarding the Gentry experiment just yet.
In fact, his size and willingness to learn and grow, combined with the Steelers' need at tight end, makes him one of my players to keep a close eye on during the rest of camp and preseason. If he continues to trend upward, he may just become that solid blocking, 40-catch, three-or-four touchdown tight end the Steelers need.
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