One of the players who may play the biggest role in filling in the gaps within the Pittsburgh Steelers offense opened up by Antonio Brown’s departure doesn’t even play the wide receiver position. But he figures to be a big part of the passing game in his third year with the team.
I’m talking about veteran tight end Vance McDonald, of course, who is entering his seventh year in the NFL but only third since being traded to the Steelers in late August of 2017. His production from his first season in Pittsburgh to his second was night and day, for multiple reasons. They are hoping his 2019 production can eclipse what he did last year.
“I guess the big thing was he got on a moving train the year that we acquired him”, Head Coach Mike Tomlin recalled of McDonald’s relatively humble Steelers beginnings. “We acquired him right at the very beginning of the season, so he lacked the offseason and the summer and things of that nature”.
He would spend the rest of that year, sometimes while battling a string of different injuries that kept him sidelined, just trying to learn the playbook and being on the same page, or in the same chapter, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
McDonald did become well-read, so to speak, in the offensive vernacular over the summer, and he helped translate that into 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns, all of which represented career-highs for the former second-round pick. But he still missed training camp with injuries, and wasn’t fully integrated into the system just yet.
This year should be different. After years of not performing up to his abilities for a myriad of reasons, he really showed his Pro Bowl potential, and with the golden opportunity provided by Brown’s departure, he and the Steelers are ready to unlock it.
Said Tomlin of his clear number one tight end, “he’s a professional, but it’s really good to have him throughout the calendar year and be a part of the team development. His role is growing because of that. He’s just a solid professional and quality player”.
Sure, the opportunity to actually have him on the field and in the classroom all year is going to do wonders for his ability to be a major contributor to the offense. But so too will the fact that there are dozens upon dozens of extra targets this year that are now going to be going to Brown that will have to be redistributed.
McDonald was still splitting time with Jesse James for much of last season. James is gone, and there’s no clear number two tight end any longer. He’s the guy, not just in the tight end room, but one of the guys, the leaders of the offense as whole, one of the players the rest of the locker room is going to look to to make the needed plays. And it seems as though everybody is on board and ready for it to happen.