I was looking for something to say about Vance McDonald today given the amount that he has spoken since OTAs have begun. He is entering his seventh season now in the NFL, soon to turn 29, and his third with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is coming off a career year as well, during which he seemed to really find his footing for the first time since being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round in 2013.
But it seems to me that he found not just his footing, but his voice, as well. While he has always been a fairly eloquent and thought-out speaker when he has given interviews, he seems to be more confident in his role and his element, and with a greater sense of ownership in what the Steelers are trying to do.
In other words, he seems to be becoming something of a leader. Especially with Jesse James leaving, he is now clearly the top of the depth chart at tight end, behind him being Xavier Grimble and now rookie Zach Gentry.
McDonald caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns last season, catching about 70 percent of the passes going his way while averaging over 12 yards per reception. That’s a pretty nice balance of efficiency that the Steelers have to be happy with.
But he puts a lot of work into that yardage average. He averaged 7.8 yards after the catch per reception last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was third among tight ends with at least 60 targets in the passing game. The only two who had more than him were George Kittle and Evan Engram. And nobody else was within two yards of him.
A good portion of that came at the expense of Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Chris Conte, whom he stiff-armed into the afterlife on a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown down in Florida back in Week Three of the regular season. The bulk of that came after the catch.
Coming in a primetime game, McDonald’s stiff arm made the highlight reels and is still shown at times. It put him on the map, and really helped him assert himself. It was kind of his coming out party, and ended up leading to a strong season, giving way to 2019.
During which he seems to feel a sense of belonging, and a sense of being wanted, than he ever has before in his professional career. There is a leadership role that he can easily step in right now, even if it is more subtle than most.
He already has a good relationship with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (he joked recently that he was going to buy the quarterback more gifts to help encourage more targets his way this year), which is a good start.