“It will be my breakthrough season”, Vance McDonald told Ed Bouchette of his plans for the 2018 campaign with the Pittsburgh Steelers, his second season with the team after joining them in late August. The Steelers traded their fourth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers for McDonald and their fifth-round pick, so this is his first real offseason work in Pittsburgh.
The entire season was something of a crash course for the tight end. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told reporters last year that they were using their first-round bye during the postseason to continue to get McDonald fully integrated into the offense with some rapport with the quarterback.
It did seem to work, as he had the best game of his career, statistically, with 10 receptions for 112 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that boasted the best secondary and some of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL, most notably Telvin Smith.
“It’s good, just being able to take the time and slow things down in terms of the mental load and get details of all the routes and stuff”, he told Bouchette about actually getting the opportunity to go through a full offseason with the team.
Even if he didn’t have much time the learn during the regular season last year, his growth was also repeatedly stunted by a series of injuries that occurred throughout the year, with limited him to only 10 games, several of which he did not finish due to injury.
McDonald is a former second-round draft pick who has yet to actually live up to his potential over five seasons. He has never been the full-time featured tight end in an offense, but he is going to have the opportunity to serve in that role in 2018 and work with the most talented group he has ever been around.
One thing we did see last year is that when McDonald was on the field, especially later in the year, Roethlisberger did like to throw his way. I wrote about it back in March. On 171 routes run, he was targeted 37 times, or once every 4.5 routes, roughly, and he produced 1.75 yards per route run. The offense averaged 8.1 yards per play when he was targeted.
While Jesse James spent most of the season serving as the team’s number one tight end, first because he was the only one who knew the offense and later because McDonald was frequently injured, we did see those roles change as the season developed, with the latter playing in some key situations, such as in the two-minute drill.
The sixth-year tight end is also looking forward to working with Randy Fichtner. He told Bouchette that he thinks “it’s going to be a good change for us” to move from Todd Haley to Fichtner, who has spent the past several years as the team’s quarterbacks coach.