Even If Vance McDonald Bounces Back, Steelers Need Serious Help At TE

Let’s cut right to the chase.

The Pittsburgh Steelers need to invest heavily in a tight end. They’re long overdue.

For a franchise built through the draft since Chuck Noll and Bill Nunn arrived on scene, for too long they’ve ignored the position. But Alex, you’ll say, they had Heath Miller. There was no need to invest. Fair enough. But Miller’s been retired since 2015 and Pittsburgh’s far from the only team to have a cornerstone tight end over the last decade.

Here are the facts. The last tight end the organization’s selected on Day One or Two of the draft, top three rounds, was Matt Spaeth.

In 2008.

Their highest selection at the position has been the 5th round. Jesse James in 2015, Zach Gentry last year.

Since 08, every other team has used at least a fourth round pick on a tight end. 31 of the 32, Carolina being the only exception, invested a third round pick or higher on a tight end.

Only Pittsburgh stands alone.

Here’s a list of tight ends they’ve drafted over that span.

2019 – Zach Gentry (5th Round)
2015 – Jesse James (5th Round)
2014 – Rob Blanchflower (7th Round)
2012 – David Paulson (7th Round)
2009 – David Johnson (7th Round)

Far from an inspiring list. Which is downright weird. Pittsburgh isn’t anti-tight end. They aren’t an innovative, four receiver offense taking the league by storm. They value the position. They have to block. Have to catch. Need to be trustworthy. Must be involved in the offense.

Since Miller’s retirement, the team has gone outside the norm to address the position. The offseason Miller moved onto life’s work, they chased Ladarius Green, ignoring his concussion history and paid dearly for it. Green lasted one year, played in six games, with one touchdown in black and gold.

When the team cut him, they went into 2017 with a shrug and a prayer. A third year Jesse James, a dart throw in Xavier Grimble, and a reunion with David Johnson. The group struggled in training camp, compelling Pittsburgh to make a last second deal to acquire Vance McDonald.

Which, for the record, was a good trade. Even if his wheels are falling off now. He was a cheap option, both in trade equity (Pittsburgh gave up a 4th and got a 5th round back from San Fran) and in contract. But today, his tank seems to be on fumes.

It’s time for the team to look at a long-term option. To build the team the traditional way, especially in an offseason like this one where there’s zero cap space. Fans can only dream of signing Austin Hooper or Hunter Henry. It’s not reality.

But there’s a solid group of tight ends in the draft. No one is elite, no one head and shoulders above the rest. Which is fine; even if such a prospect existed, picking at #49 means the Steelers would’ve had zero shot at him. What they will have is the potential to select a slew of talented prospects: LSU’s Thadd Moss, Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, Dayton’s Adam Trautman, Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet, and Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant. It’s hard to know who they’ll zero in on, especially this far out, but they’ll have options.

Let’s assume McDonald’s option is picked up in a couple weeks. At his best, he’s a 500 snap a season player. His most productive years have come around that mark.

Here are the years he’s gone over 300 yards receiving – shockingly, there’s only three –  accompanied by that year’s snap count.

2015 – 473 snaps
2016 – 442 snaps
2018 – 564 snaps

Those three seasons average out to 493 snaps. 500 year type of guy.

Look at 2019. Despite playing in 14 games, one fewer than that great 2018 season, he played 702 snaps, a career high. But it was one of his worst years, looking run-down and a shell of himself.

Getting the most out of McDonald means managing his snaps as much as possible. Like that ’18 year, where he and Jesse James each played 50% of the time (James logged 562 snaps). Do anything more and you run a greater risk of injury, and it’s already impossible to believe he’ll be available all 16 games, and diminishing returns on his play.

Here’s the absolute best case scenario for 2020. Pick up his option, Ben Roethlisberger returns, McDonald plays reasonably well, though probably not quite at his ’18 level, and you still have to find a way to supplant him with hundreds of more snaps from another tight end, just as James did two years ago.

Time for this team to get back to its roots. Build from within, draft the position with their second or third round comp pick, and find that long-term investment in a position that’s always been vital to their offense.

12 years since they’ve lasted drafted a tight end in the top three rounds.

2020 is the year to end that drought.

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