Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had six players voted to go to the Pro Bowl and of them, running back James Conner was the only first-timer. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and outside linebacker T.J. Watt also both wound up being first-time Pro Bowlers last season, but as injury replacements. So, will the Steelers have any first-time Pro Bowlers this upcoming season?
As part of him recently attempting to predict 2019 first-time Pro Bowlers for all 16 AFC teams, Marc Sessler of NFL.com chose tight end Vance McDonald for the Steelers and below is what he wrote as he reason for doing so.
“Older than most on this list, the 29-year-old McDonald has generated some noise as a breakthrough player for the Steelers after producing a career-high 50 catches for 610 yards with four scores. I’m buying the chatter based on an offense stripped of Antonio Brown and tight end Jesse James, who combined for 207 targets to McDonald’s 72 in 2018. This offense enjoys its pass-catching tight ends, and McDonald tops the depth chart heading into camp. “It’s required, it’s definitely being asked,” the tight end said in May of his expanded role, “… and I will embrace it.”
Honestly, McDonald was really just one of a few realistic selections Sessler could have made for the Steelers when it comes to possible first-time Pro Bowlers for 2019. For Sessler, it probably came down to McDonald, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and guard Ramon Foster.
While McDonald was probably the right choice by Sessler for the Steelers, the former second-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers out of Rice would really need a monster 2019 season to give him a shot at being one of the two tight ends to be voted to the AFC Pro Bowl team. Last season, the two AFC tight ends voted to the Pro Bowl were Travis Kelce and Eric Ebron. Kelce, however, ultimately backed out due to injury and he was replaced by Jared Cook.
2019 was easily a career-year for McDonald, who played in 15 regular season games. Assuming he can play in at least 15 regular season games again in 2019, McDonald should be able to have another career-year and especially with him now expected to have a slightly bigger role in the passing game to help the team fill the void that was created by the trading away of wide receiver Antonio Brown back in March.
A little over a month ago, Mike Clay, who does fantasy football predictions for ESPN, predicted that McDonald would register 56 receptions for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns for the Steelers in 2019. While him hitting those stats would mean that McDonald had yet another career year, it probably wouldn’t be a good of enough season to get him voted to the Pro Bowl. In fact, McDonald would likely need to hit the 70 reception mark.
During his long career with the Steelers, former tight end Heath Miller registered 70 or more receptions in a single-season twice. Miller’s career high in receiving yardage was 816 and his 8 receiving touchdowns during that same 2012 season was also a career single-season high for him. In short and while probably unlikely to happen, it’s not unthinkable that McDonald could put up numbers close to Miller’s single-season career highs in 2019.