When looking ahead at possible upcoming contract terminations that the Pittsburgh Steelers might make prior to the start of the 2020 NFL league year in March, it’s not hard to include tight end Vance McDonald on the short list of players. After all, the Steelers stand to free up $5.6725 million in 2020 salary cap space prior to roster displacement by merely not picking up McDonald’s 2020 option prior to the current league year expiring in March, and that freed up space can help go towards a potential franchise tag for outside linebacker Bud Dupree, should that indeed be in the team’s plans. However, McDonald’s 2020 option not being picked up by the Steelers this offseason isn’t as cut and dry of a decision due to the current overall depth chart at the tight end position.
Currently, the Steelers have just four tight ends under contract for 2020 season in McDonald, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader and Christian Scotland-Williamson as Nick Vannett, who the team acquired in a trade this past September, is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March. Gentry dressed for all of three games during rookie season and thus the jury is still out on what he is or isn’t moving forward. Rader and Scotland-Williamson, on the other hand, have both been practice squad players the last two seasons. Even if Vannett is re-signed in the coming weeks and months, it’s hard to imagine him being anything more than a No. 2 tight end moving forward and probably an average one at best.
While most Steelers fans rightfully expect the team to address the tight end position a second-consecutive year in the annual draft, there’s no guarantee as to what round they’ll do so in or what quality of player they’ll ultimately get. As we’ve learned over the last two decades with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, he hates to be handcuffed and forced into drafting a certain position in a certain round due to positional need. Because of that long history of his, it’s hard to imagine him going into the 2020 NFL Draft without having some sort of experienced and proven No. 1 tight end under contract for the 2020 season as a safety net of sorts.
While the Steelers forthcoming decision to pick up or decline McDonald’s option for the 2020 season sounds like an important one, it’s more procedural than anything else and that’s because there’s no guaranteed money involved in it. In short, if McDonald’s 2020 option is picked up by the start of the new league year in March, the team can still cut him at a later date and still recognize the same amount salary cap savings up until the start of the regular season.
On the surface, the only real drawback associated with the Steelers picking up McDonald’s 2020 option prior to the start of the new league year in March is that the team would miss out on any compensatory draft pick value for 2021 as the tight end would become an unrestricted free agent if said option is not picked up. Even if McDonald’s option weren’t picked up by the Steelers and he did ultimately sign with another team during the main free agency signing period, the compensatory value for 2021 that he would return would likely be less than a third-round one.
In essence, the Steelers decision as it relates to McDonald’s 2020 option could come down to how badly the team deems the need for an instant offseason salary cap savings of $5.6725 million prior to roster displacement and if that savings is worth them going into the annual draft with an ultra-extreme need to draft a tight end early. Would Colbert really feel comfortable going into the draft with only Gentry, Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson, and possibly even Vannett, as the three or four primary players on the team’s tight end depth chart? Probably not.
Not that he probably has that much say in the matter in the grand scheme of things, but I bet Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wouldn’t care to be looking such a tight end depth chart that wouldn’t include McDonald in the face prior to the draft, either, and especially with the team currently not having a first-round selection on the books.
Should the Steelers ultimately decide to pick up McDonald’s 2020 option, they could still look hard at selecting another tight end early in the 2020 NFL Draft. And while it sounds a bit extreme, should they ultimately land a tight end in the draft that they have a strong conviction about in terms of that player’s rookie season, they could ultimately decide to trade McDonald to another team at some point during the remainder of the offseason.
While it’s hard to predict whether McDonald will ultimately be on the Steelers 2020 53-man roster come Week 1 of the season, the odds are seemingly probably favorable that he’ll be on the offseason 90-man roster come the start of the new league year in March. That’s because other than the immediate $5.6725 million in 2020 salary cap space prior to roster displacement that the team would recognize by not picking up McDonald’s 2020 option by the start of the new league year in March, there’s not much else to gain overall.
Regardless, we’ll have our answer about McDonald’s immediate offense future come March and thus until then, all any of us can do is to speculate about whether his option for 2020 will be picked up.