TE | Penn State Nittany Lions | 6-5 | 250 lbs.
Rookie receivers, in general, have expectations they must satisfy during their opening season in order to see significant time on offense. Over the last three NFL seasons, rookie tight ends have averaged to run five particular patterns that account for nearly 80% of total routes. Those five routes include Crossers, Outs, Flat work, Hitches, and Gos. Crossing routes — where receivers will intentionally cross midfield — easily stand as the most frequent, important route at the position. On average, rookie TEs will run a Crosser on nearly a fourth of all routes. To put that into perspective, rookie TEs will be asked to run Posts, Corners, Ins, and Slants on less than 20% of total routes, combined. Whenever I make references to “NFL routes” in these Dyno rookie profiles, those are the guidelines I am following.
It took all of four games in Happy Valley for true freshman Pat Freiermuth to jump over the TE competition at Penn State in order to claim the starting position. He would never surrender that right. In fact, Freiermuth would become one of only four Penn State true sophomores to be designated as a team captain in Nittany Lions’ history. As a 19-year-old, Freiermuth finished second among all FBS TEs with eight TD receptions. He would finish up his PSU career as the team’s record holder for TDs from a TE (16). He’s also tied with former WR O.J. McDuffie for second-place among all team receivers.
If you have any familiarity with the genetics in his family, these accomplishments would not come as a surprise. His father, John Freiermuth, was a basketball star for Saint Anselm College. His mother, Dianne Freiermuth, is a North Andover High Athletics Hall of Famer for her work as HC of the field hockey team. Pat’s brother, Tim Freiermuth, was an offensive lineman, and, later, assistant coach at Springfield College. Digging deeper, his uncle, Mike Foley, was the O-line coach at UMass (2016-18), UConn (2006-14), and longtime HC at Colgate (1981-2005). His cousin — Mike’s son, Pat Foley, was the co-DC at Colgate (2009-12) until becoming the HC at Brooks School (2013-Present) where he would coach Freiermuth for three seasons. Hell, even his little sister, Meg Freiermuth, is currently a star field hockey player at Pentucket Regional HS.
Freiermuth grew up in Merrimac, Massachusetts rooting for the New England Patriots and his favorite player, Rob Gronkowski. At first, Freiermuth became a local celebrity due to his work on the basketball court. He earned the title of Eagle-Tribune Super Teamer in basketball as one of the top-five players in the area. But he would also try his hand at football. He guided Pentucket Regional High School to a Cape Ann League title and North Finals runner-up as a freshman. After his sophomore season, that popularity would come from his efforts on the football field. His longtime friends would give him the nickname of “Baby Gronk,” a reference that, in spite of his best efforts, would follow him to this day.
That sophomore season at Pentucket would see Freiermuth actually become the team’s starting QB after his predecessor was injured. In case you’re wondering, he would throw for more INTs than games played. Freiermuth made the very difficult decision to transfer to the Brooks School — a private institution — in order to properly prepare him for college football under the tutelage of his cousin, Pat Foley. However, the transfer would force Freiermuth to repeat his sophomore year. In his second year with the Bishops (2016), Freiermuth led his team to the Independent School League (ISL) Championship. His senior season would end with a New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) Class C Championship title. For his efforts as a TE and LB, Freiermuth claimed the Class C Player of the Year, ISL co-MVP, and was named All-State as a LB.
Freiermuth was offered 14 scholarships as a member of the 2018 recruiting class. He chose Penn State from a list that also included Ohio State, LSU, Notre Dame, Michigan, Duke, Maryland, Boston College, and Missouri. ESPN would rank him as their TE8, 247Sports as TE9, and Rivals as its TE6. Some of the names commonly rated higher included Ohio State’s Jeremy Ruckert, Miami’s (FL) Brevin Jordan, and Florida’s Kyle Pitts — a truly stacked TE class, to say the very least. Freiermuth headed off to University Park with aspirations to “become a college football coach or work in law enforcement.” We can make a pretty clear assumption those career goals have been adjusted slightly.
But Freiermuth’s time at Penn State has not been free from bumps along the way. His sophomore season saw an unexpected drop in blocking efficiency, in general. To the point that, during his junior season, his role in pass protection was reduced by nearly 25%. However, his run blocking would improve during his final season to the point that he will enter the Draft as one of the best in the class. Some of the struggles Freiermuth encountered were not of his doing. He has stated that the 2020 season started off as a disaster after the Big Ten made the decision to delay the season due to COVID-19. And that he ended up wondering why he was still waiting around to play in Happy Valley.
Keep in mind, since Freiermuth repeated his sophomore year in high school, he was eligible to declare for the NFL Draft after his true sophomore season. Rumors began swirling that Freiermuth would forego/opt-out of his junior season. That is, until he made an unexpected appearance during HC James Franklin’s interview on the Big Ten Network to announce that he would play the season with the team. The season would begin as an AP Preseason All-America first team, and end as the Kwalick-Clark Big Ten Tight End of the Year and first team All-Big Ten as voted on by the coaches. Be that as it may, Freiermuth would eventually sit out the rest of the season following Week 11 in order to prepare for the draft.
During The Opening Regional in 2017 at Florham Park, New Jersey, Freiermuth did not show out as some had hoped. Afterwards, some would even consider former Nittany Lions TE Zach Kuntz to be the better of the two, and, most surprisingly, the better receiver. Freiermuth recorded his 40-yard dash at 4.95 seconds, his short shuttle at 4.44 seconds, and added a 28.3 inch vertical jump. Luckily for Freiermuth, NFL teams are not currently in the process of evaluating his pre-college athleticism. A report from the Boston Herald from late 2019 passed along that Freiermuth had improved his 40 time to 4.72, and his short shuttle to 4.17. As we’ll see in his game tape, those measurements would appear to be accurate.
For our review of his true freshman season in 2018, we’ll use this video. Unfortunately, several highlights included in the footage are from 2019. I’ll indicate which as we go. Freiermuth caught five passes in a goal-to-go (GTG) situation in ‘18. We see his very first career TD at Illinois. Not the prettiest footwork, but it got the job done. The very first play in the reel is nearly identical. Both are RPOs (run-pass options) where the O-line in genuinely run blocking, and receivers are running actual routes. Both are also “Slide” routes to the left, one of the extremely important patterns that comprise the flat work mentioned above.
The same setup is shown for his third GTG TD at 4:16 but with a Slide to the right. We see his fourth GTG example at 1:18 on another RPO during his very first start across from Ohio State. The seam release ends with a one-handed TD signaling his arrival to a national audience. His fifth-and-final GTG TD can be found at 4:06 from H-back on a slant versus man coverage.
Trying to read some of the jerseys in college football can lead to migraines. Trust me, I spent countless hours of my life grading live games at PFF with immediate deadlines and some of the worst color combinations you’ll ever see on a jersey. Case in point, the Out route by Freiermuth at 1:28 facing Memphis (‘19 from the Goodyear Cotton Bowl). The hurt Freiermuth puts on this defender is staggering. I’ll detail several other examples where Freiermuth looks like a cornerback trying to stop an O-lineman when it’s actually a TE vs. a safety.
Other highly important, common routes are shown on a Crosser at 2:58 from H-back defended by Devin Bush in a Cover 3. We have a Go facing Michigan at 3:09 where Freiermuth wrecks the man coverage from LB Khaleke Hudson (‘19). And, at 0:26, we have him on a Hitch from the slot where two Minnesota defenders fail to bring him down (‘19). The Corner route is found way down the list in importance for an NFL TE, but Freiermuth shows us his soft hands at 0:54 on one from inside slot facing Cover 4. Freiermuth would make an immediate splash finding and exploiting holes in zone defenses. We see him at 4:29 sitting in a hole in a Cover 4, providing us with an excellent example.
The one aspect of the Penn State offense where Freiermuth would shred opposing defenses was with Play Action. It’s where Freiermuth would score 7 of his 8 TDs that season. We see an example from the slot at 0:14 on a slant facing. Cover 2-Man. Then we have a trio with Freiermuth situated at H-back. You might notice the more than obvious similarity at 2:03, 3:37, and 4:51. All three are identical Quick Out-and-Ups. The first two are against Cover 2, the third across from Cover 3.
We can close out Freiermuth’s opening season with PSU detailing his work with another scheme that saw him score half of his TDs on less than 20% of routes. Once again, it’s the RPO. And Freiermuth is back to the same tricks with those Slide routes from H-back. We have him at 0:36 (Cover 4) and 2:43 (Cover 3), and on a Slide to the left at 1:04 (Cover 3). We also see him doing frequent work down the seam from H-back. At 1:35 and 4:43, he’s making LBs pay for stepping too far down reading the mesh in Cover 4 shells. And, one of the examples I mentioned above (yet another play from ‘19), a pair of Cover 2 safeties are merely children in the way of Freiermuth reaching the end zone at 3:51.
For the 2019 season, we’ll use this highlight reel. It’s very easy to come away from viewing the route repetition and short work as less than exciting. But one of the most important aspects of the TE position is a grasp of fundamentals — especially at an early stage in a career. The Penn State coaching staff didn’t change on the offensive side, but did see a switch under center from Trace McSorely to Sean Clifford. During Freiermuth’s true sophomore season, he continued to dominate on Play Action and RPOs. Since RPOs have Play Action built in, we only have a few examples on pure Play Action. At 2:10, Freiermuth is at H-back on another example of the Quick Out-and-Up for the TD that we saw his freshman season. We have a pair facing man coverage at 4:49 on an Out, and at 4:39 on a Slant split wide.
The NFL has fully embraced the RPO wave made popular in college play. The ripple effects have subtly changed the game in so many ways. Freiermuth’s ability to exploit defenses on RPOs will make him a highly-coveted asset. We have three examples from him at H-back on RPOs where he takes it to the house. On the opening clip and at 0:58, he scores down the seam against Cover 4. At the 0:21 mark, his Slide left is just too much for the Buffalo secondary to defend. Then we have a pair of massively important Speed Outs to the flat. At 4:14, you can see how vulnerable this Cover 3 becomes under these circumstances. At the 4:27 mark, Freiermuth’s Speed Out from H-back has him running through Indiana LB Micah McFadden like he isn’t even there. Finally, the Slant stationed on the line of scrimmage at 5:12 nearly finds the end zone.
Freiermuth compiled plenty of offense without the benefit of Play Action or RPOs. We’ll focus on his Hitches and Slants. When Freiermuth lined up in the slot, one of his most common routes was the Hitch. And he would line up in the slot on most passing situations without Play Action or RPOs. He ran Hitches facing man coverage (1:34), Cover 3 (3:03 and 3:09), or Cover 4 (3:48). The number of Slants Freiermuth will be asked to run in the NFL will certainly decrease. But he put plenty on film at PSU. He is seen juking Tyriq Thompson out of his shoes in a Cover 2 at 1:39. We see virtually identical Slants from Freiermuth facing Cover 4 at 0:13, 3:17, and 3:25. Finally, we see him positioned out wide on a Slant against Ohio State man coverage.
Freiermuth would end up only playing in four games during his true junior season. We’ll use this footage to take a look. The Penn State coaching staff would see a major change when Kirk Ciarrocca replaced Ricky Rahne as OC. Ciarrocca would more than double the number of Crossers from his receivers. If I have one serious complaint from his first two seasons it would be the lack of Crossing routes. The additional experience should serve Freiermuth very well at the next level. At 0:17, Freiermuth defeats his man coverage from the slot. Then he burns Ohio State LB Baron Browning’s man coverage off Play Action (0:29). From the few routes we do have, the additional examples at 1:17, 1:27, and 1:48 show that Freiermuth is dedicated to refining his craft.
Freiermuth would only score a single TD during his four games. You see it on an RPO bust at 0:24. He did break loose for 70-plus yards on the Go at 1:03 where he’s shoe-stringed at the goal line. But it was a scramble drill, coverage bust play. Things just simply did not go as planned for Penn State, or for Freiermuth, this past season. But he does show us some added burst to his game at 0:38 on a Speed Out. Other Speed Outs are shown at 0:57 and 1:35. Then, he added a Hitch-Stop-and-Go to his repertoire at 1:55. But we still see him working on Slants, shown at 2:03 split wide against man coverage. And watch him toss an over aggressive LB away with the tricky spin on a Hitch at 2:10.
When we evaluate players like Freiermuth and Kyle Pitts, straight comparisons offer the same reliability from viewing a halfback and a fullback. Both backfield mates occupy the backfield, but their roles are vastly different. The same can be said of Freiermuth and Pitts. The UF version of a TE does offer plenty of promise in a blocking capacity, but opposing defenses will account for Pitts on every play regardless of where on the line you position him. The terms “Move TE” and “Joker” were originally termed precisely for these reasons. Freiermuth’s best work will be as an on the ball TE, attached to the O-line from inline, or at H-back.
Does he possess the athleticism to play from the slot? Absolutely. But he has also shown the ability to move defenders with his run blocking. Freiermuth will thrive in a Play Action and/or RPO-heavy environment where opposing defenses will be forced to honor his blocking and ability to release down into his routes. The one destination that stands out for each of the top four TEs in the class is Carolina. They desperately need to replace Ian Thomas’s worthless “production.” The Eagles and Chargers also make sense since they used RPOs and Play Action at top-10 rates. It’s questionable that Cardinals' HC Kliff Kingsbury would commit high draft capital to a TE, but Arizona would be the perfect fit. Many would like see him land in New England, which also somewhat fits.
The Bottom Line
With his dominance off Play Action, the player comparison that stands out is Mark Andrews. But he also shares a productive background in basketball with Jimmy Graham that suggests similarities. In no way has he established himself to the point of comparison to Gronk, Travis Kelce, or George Kittle. If you see anyone comp Freiermuth to any of those three, completely disregard.
Some similarities exist to Jack Doyle’s game, but I just can’t get past the Andrews comp. That’s the game I feel compares best with Freiermuth’s. But we need to see those reported improvements in his athletic measurements stand up at his Pro Day on March 25. Location will always dictate value with a TE. At this stage in the process, I have Freiermuth behind only Pitts at the position. Pro Days and his Draft landing spot will decide if he should remain there above Brevin Jordan.