One of the few positive things to come out of the Pittsburgh Steelers Divisional Round playoff loss last season to the Jacksonville Jaguars was the fact that tight end Vance McDonald caught 10 passes for 122 yards. That was a big positive when you consider that McDonald, who was acquired just prior to the start of the 2018 season via a trade with the San Francisco 49ers, caught all of 14 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown during the regular season. This season, the hope is that McDonald will set career highs in both receptions, receiving yardage and touchdown receptions now that he’ll have a full offseason under his belt with the Steelers.
“It’s just like little, bitty nuances,” McDonald said about the difference between being in Pittsburgh for OTAs this offseason as opposed to not last season, according to 93.7 The Fan. “I mean, like I said, you’re being able to work things that you don’t necessarily have the time to do in a small work week when you’re in-season. Especially with mine, that was a little bit more fast forward as I get to miss everything last year. So it’s, it’s just those little bit of details in routes.”
McDonald was not only handicapped last season by being a late arrival in Pittsburgh, several different injuries resulted in him missing six regular season games in total as well as parts of a few others. Those injuries were of various kinds and included him suffering through back, knee, ankle and shoulder ailments. McDonald said Tuesday after practice that missing time last season due to injuries was a “big itch” for him.
Now seemingly fully healthy again with four of the team’s 10 total OTA practices now completed, along with a much better understanding of the offense, McDonald has a very positive outlook on the upcoming season.
“We just got a little bit of different personnel, hopefully kind of utilize me on the field a little bit more, put me in different places so it’ll be fun and exciting whenever we keep moving forward,” McDonald said after Tuesday’s OTA practice, according to Jacob Klinger of pennlive.com.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Steelers other primary tight end, Jesse James, talked about how he and McDonald posses different skill sets and how each might be used moving forward with Randy Fichtner now serving as the team’s offensive coordinator.
“We obviously have a little bit different skill set,” said James of the differences between himself and McDonald, who caught all of 14 passes for 188 yards and a touchdown last season with the Steelers. “They like to use him out wide a little bit, try to keep me interior most of the time. So, we have some cool, unique sets that we’ll be running.”
When asked Tuesday what he think his role in the Steelers offense will be in 2018, McDonald gave a very measured, yet smart, response.
“Anywhere I can fit in,” McDonald said. “I like to think that I could play anywhere on the field so really just comes down to getting the reps right now while I have time and to just to build just relationships with Ben [Roethlisberger] and just go from there.”
More than anything else, the biggest takeaway from what McDonald had to say Tuesday afternoon was that he really appreciates having a full offseason this year with the Steelers which is something that he didn’t have last season.
“It makes a huge difference,” McDonald said. “Even if it really doesn’t, like, just even for me, just individually, just having those reps and just building that muscle memory of just running different routes and stuff. And you know, you can only do so much last season and just having the opportunity to come out here and you may try something else, like something that you would only see in like a wide-out running in their route tree.”
McDonald’s career high in receptions entering 2018 is 30 while his career high in receiving yards is just 391 yards. Assuming he stays healthy all season, it’s easy to speculate that if he gets the lion’s share of the offensive snaps in 2018 that he’ll be able to eclipse both of those numbers.