09 Apr Dubbed “Baby Gronk” Early: Pat Freiermuth Continues to Prove People Wrong
The Next Great Tight End
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and every talented and large white Tight End is going to be compared to Rob Gronkowski. The monicker “Baby Gronk” has been thrown around so often to this point that it has lost most of its luster and substance.
The latest in the line of aptly named successors to the moniker is Penn State star Pat Freiermuth. The Massachusetts native has been on NFL radars for the last two seasons, and entered the 2020 college football campaign as one of the early favorites to be the top Tight End off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft. Freiermuth gained popularity on campus over his three years at Penn State as the unquestioned top prospect at the position, who is just fulfilling his lofty expectations. In reality, the notoriety following Freiermuth was not always to the level that you might think. He was, in fact, not even the top Tight End recruit for Penn State during the 2018 recruiting cycle. That designation belonged to classmate Zack Kuntz, widely considered a national Top-Five Tight End by virtually every recruiting platform. Freiermuth on the other hand, ranked as low as thirteenth nationally according to 247Sports at his position. “The other guy” at the position in the Nittany Lions class, Freiermuth wore that chip on his shoulder more intently than the iconic #87 that fans became so accustomed to over his three seasons in Happy Valley.
“I’m a competitor and that’s what makes me who I am,” Freiermuth explained. “I take the rankings and fuel my fire. I took being the ninth tight end in the country as disrespect.”
While prepping at Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts, Freiermuth was afforded an extra year of development. He arrived at Penn State University as a mature “true freshman”, with every opportunity to prove his worth, replacing former All American Tight End Mike Gesicki who graduated the year prior. Like most freshmen, the transition had its up and downs. For Freiermuth specifically, his new football family helped a ton.
“It was definitely hard. Being part of the football team makes it easier because you associate with all of your teammates,” he explained. “ It helped that we were there in the summer getting adjusted to it.”
Freiermuth handled that adjustment as well as could be expected – especially on the football field. Pressed into early playing time, the talented playmaker responded with his first of three All-Big Ten designations, as well as a Freshman All American honor after recording 368 yards and eight touchdowns on 26 receptions. The national perception on how talented Freiermuth was quickly changed. That’s where the “Baby Gronk” references really started to take on a life of its own. With every reception, big game, and highlight-reel touchdown, the nickname began to carry more and more weight.
Freiermuth explained that this wasn’t the first time that he had been dubbed with the moniker. “People joked about it in high school, actually. When I first got asked about it I laughed it off,” Freiermuth relived. “It evolved into something I didn’t expect it to.”
With that type of reputation, a higher level of expectations and scrutiny are naturally going to follow. Being compared to a player of Rob Gronkowski’s level is the ultimate compliment. Freiermuth doesn’t shy away from the expectations, but that hasn’t taken away from that chip… the hardworking persona that has gotten him to this point.
“I have a lot of work to get to that level. The hard work never stops.”
That high level of play would continue into the 2019 season, where he would take his game to an even higher level, ascending into the elite category of College Football Tight Ends. He would best almost all of his numbers across the board, to the tune of 507 yards and seven touchdowns on 43 receptions. It garnered him a First Team All-Big Ten selection, and various All-American accolades. Despite only being a true sophomore in the program, Freiermuth was selected as a team captain for the Nittany Lions. His work ethic and production made him an easy pick for the typical style that Penn State has historically employed. A part of a tremendous tradition in the Tight End room, Freiermuth credited coaching for setting the standard.
“Coach (Tyler) Bowen is a father figure to me. There’s an expectation in the Tight End room and he had high expectations for me,” he explained. ”The standard keeps evolving there.”
With Freiermuth attending Brooks School for five years, speculation started to build whether the 2019 season would be his last in Happy Valley. A historically weak Tight End group highlighted the 2020 NFL Draft class, indicating Freiermuth would have been a safe bet as the top Tight End off of the board with round one potential, if he had chosen to declare. He would quickly dispel those rumors, choosing to return for his true junior season, one that he hoped would encapsulate his impact on the university. Unfortunately for Freiermuth, the COVID-19 pandemic put his decision to the test, threatening whether the Big Ten conference would even field a team. Despite an early cancellation, and potential push to the Spring, the conference would eventually set on a return after much pushback from the league’s coaches and players. With every opportunity to sit the haphazard season out, Freiermuth made it known quickly that he was ready to step back on the field with the team, which would end up being his final campaign. He, once again, would be selected as a team captain. Despite a ton of struggles for the team, Freiermuth put together a nice stretch of games, collecting 310 yards and one touchdown on 23 receptions in just four total games played. His season would be cut short due to a shoulder injury that required surgery. That ended what was a record-setting three years at the position for the talented pass catcher. Although his career may not have ended the way he envisioned, Freiermuth had the opportunity to relive all of his accolades, and appreciate all that he had accomplished in 30 games played for the team.
“Accolades mean a lot but the captaincies will carry with me my entire life,” he explained.
He even had a chance to take a step back with Coach Bowen; a person that he instilled so much credit for the successes that he had. That moment stuck with Pat heavily.
“After the last game, I talked to Bowen for a long time. It means a lot to me that I can mean so much to a program like Penn State. It is special to be a part of that tradition and part of that legacy.”
Looking back on it, the amount that Freiermuth achieved in two full seasons and four games is astounding. He will live in the record books forever, but is not encapsulated by accolades, recognition, or the Baby Gronk monicker. No, Pat is an ambassador for the university. He is what future Nittany Lion greats will strive for.
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LET’S ROLL THE TAPE
“Baby Gronk” immediately instills visions of pure dominance and physicality into your mind. Gronkowski made his rise profiling as one of the most physically imposing players, regardless of position, in recent memory.
Freiermuth also boasted those types of moments during his Nittany Lion career. Some seek contact when the opportunity shows. Freiermuth maximizes his high level of physicality and consistently wins through contact post catch; this time for a near touchdown.
There is a no-nonsense approach to how Pat Freiermuth plays the game. When the term “YAC” is envisioned, loose hips and Madden level jukes are conjured up for many. For a player with this mentality, there is no quicker distance than point A to point B.
The issues that Tight Ends and slot receivers can create are mismatches on second-level defenders. Freiermuth boasts the type of athletic profile to create an abundance of headaches for linebackers and box safeties alike.
Working the slot fade, Freiermuth uses every inch of his frame for the touchdown. He creates advantageous throwing windows in one on one situations. With a subtle push off to boot, he is almost unrecoverable for lesser athletes on the second level.
Also flashing dominance as a blocker in the run game, Pat has the all-around skill set to affect games in multiple ways. For teams that ask their Tight Ends to play in-line a ton, with the ability to move around to create mismatches, Freiermuth is sure to be in heavy demand.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT HIM!
In a class that includes a player like Florida’s Kyle Pitts, along with a haphazard Big Ten season, and an injury-plagued ending to Freiermuth’s final campaign, the talented pass-catcher has gone under the radar throughout most of the draft process. It wasn’t too long ago that many would have held Freiermuth atop their Overall Tight End Rankings.
Unfortunately, the nature of the 2020 college football season put a damper to that storyline.
The film that Freiermuth put up over the last three years is undeniable. With a fully healthy pre-draft process, a first-round valuation was still a reasonable projection. While recovering from his shoulder injury, his talent was not able to be on full display. For a team that is lucky enough to get a player of Freiermuth’s talent level on day two (rounds three and four), they are in for a potential massive gamble.
An urge for you all: Don’t forget about Pat Freiermuth. When on the field, he is a Top Thirty player in this class, with substantial upside moving forward. If his past has shown us anything, counting him out will only bring him back stronger. Cast out the “Baby Gronk” image; Pat Freiermuth is about to forge his own legacy.
An NFL Draft Analyst with extensive credits to his name, Ryan has joined XTB for a special edition series covering the next wave of prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft. Ryan is a former member of the Sports Illustrated affiliated Draft Bible, where his work has been featured on SINow and Bleacher Report. Ryan also co-hosts the NFL Prospects Podcast.