New TE Nick Vannett trying to get ‘up to speed’ with Steelers offense
Nick Vannett spent a few months of offseason workouts catching passes from Mason Rudolph never envisioning he would do so again in a vastly different setting with the fourth week of the NFL season approaching.
In fact, Vannett never expected to be back in Pittsburgh so soon after the Seattle Seahawks left here with a 28-26 victory less than two weeks ago.
He made the cross-country flight again this week when the Steelers acquired Vannett from Seattle in exchange for a fifth-round draft choice. Just days after catching passes from six-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, Vannett was at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex working with Rudolph, who will make his second career start Monday night when the Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
Vannett practiced with the Steelers for the first time Thursday and said he rarely left his new quarterback’s side.
“When the defense was out there, I was next to him watching the field with him, having him help me with what I need to do or what I should do on a play,” Vannett said. “That’s going to continue.”
It will be a crash course for Vannett, who will have two more practices to learn a new offense before he takes with field Monday with his new team. With starting tight end Vance McDonald questionable to play because of a shoulder injury — he didn’t practice Thursday — Vannett could be thrust into a starting role.
Talk about on-the-job training.
“All I’m going to do is continue to keep my eyes in the playbook and keep studying,” Vannett said. “I have to be up to speed by Monday. I don’t have a choice. They plan on playing me a good amount. I’m not going to go in having any doubt about what I’m doing.
“I’m going to study the hell out of the gameplan.”
Injuries to McDonald and backup Xavier Grimble hastened the Steelers decision to acquire a veteran tight end. Depth wasn’t an issue at the position until Jesse James departed in free agency. When Grimble was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a calf injury, it left rookie Zach Gentry as the most experienced Steelers backup. And Gentry logged 10 snaps Sunday at San Francisco in his first career appearance.
Gentry, though, had four months to learn the Steelers system. Vannett has about four days.
“With his football background, he seems like a sharp guy, and I’m sure he’ll be able to pick it up quickly,” Gentry said of his new teammate. “Hopefully, he’ll be able to pick it up on the fly, and we’ll help him out with that.”
Vannett was on the Steelers radar as part of the 2016 draft class. After finishing his career at Ohio State as one of the nation’s top tight end prospects, Vannett interviewed with general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin at the Senior Bowl.
“Those are the two guys I remember meeting the most,” Vannett said.
Yet, it was Seattle that selected Vannett in the third round. In three-plus seasons, he made 16 starts in 42 games and caught 48 passes for 463 yards and four touchdowns. His best season was 2018, when Vannett caught 29 passes for 269 yards and three scores.
After playing nearly 50% of Seattle’s offensive snaps last year, Vannett’s playing time dwindled to 38% through three weeks as Will Dissly, who scored two touchdowns against the Steelers, emerged as Seattle’s top tight end.
Vannett is hoping for a fresh start with the Steelers, the team he watched while growing up in Columbus, Ohio.
“Coming out of the draft, everybody always pegged me as a wide tight end, a blocking tight end,” Vannett said. “I’ve always felt I’m much more than that.”
He will get the chance to showcase it Monday night.
“I’m not the fastest guy, but I feel like I run pretty good routes,” he said. “I’m pretty quick, very precise at the top end, and I’ve got good hands. I see myself as the way they used Heath (Miller) and Jesse.
“I kind of see them using me in a similar role. … I’ve shown I can do that. I just haven’t been able to do that a lot. That’s why I’m excited to be here and accept that role.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .