Earlier today, Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert expressed the fact that he is feeling better about the team heading into 2020 than he was a year ago, after they went 9-6-1 and failed to make the postseason, despite the fact that they only went 8-8 in 2019 and also missed the playoffs.
The reason for that is because the defense made dramatic strides last season, featuring four Pro Bowl players in Cameron Heyward, T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, and the newly-acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick. Heyward, Watt, and Fitzpatrick were all named first-team All-Pros as well, and were the nucleus of a top-five defense.
Despite the emphasis on the defensive improvement, it’s also about the belief that the offense will be better. So much of that is tied directly to the elbow of Ben Roethlisberger, but he wasn’t the only prominent offensive player who dealt with injuries.
In fact, their top wide receiver, running back, and tight end all dealt with injuries during the 2019 season. James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster were the most visibly affected, with each of them missing several games, but Vance McDonald had similar issues, despite only missing two games last season.
The debate had now become whether or not McDonald, who has never played 16 games in his career, was worth what he is earning a year after he gained just 273 yards on 38 receptions with three touchdowns. He is due to make a base salary of over $5 million in 2020.
Based on general manager Kevin Colbert’s comments yesterday, it would seem to imply that they intend to have McDonald as part of their plans for next season. After all, the only other tight end they have on the roster for 2020 with ‘experience’ is Zach Gentry.
“I think our defense is better moving into 2020 than our defense was moving into 2019”, Colbert told reporters, via Bob Labriola. “I feel optimistic we will have Ben back. I hope the health kicks back in for James Conner, for Vance McDonald, for JuJu Smith-Schuster. But that remains to be seen. But I am more optimistic about 2020”.
Even assuming that the Steelers do keep McDonald, which for now I do believe is likely, it’s widely believed that the team will still address the tight end position this offseason in a meaningful way. It’s been common to see tight ends mocked to them with their top pick in the draft. Pro Football Focus suggested they should target Hunter Henry in free agency.
Pittsburgh originally acquired McDonald in a trade in August 2017 with the San Francisco 49ers, giving up a fourth-round pick and getting a fifth back. He only played in 10 games his first season due to a number of injuries, catching just 14 passes for 188 yards. In 2018, however, he had a career year with 50 receptions for 610 yards and four scores. He was believed to be on the cusp of a breakout for 2019, but that never materialized.
The Steelers also acquired McDonald’s contract when they acquired him, of course, and the 49ers’ deal with him was structured in ways they normally avoid. The contract is essentially structured in a pay-as-you-go format, with each year being an option year. They will have to decide whether or not to pick up his option for 2020 by March 17. He is set to earn $5.5 million in base salary, with another $900,000 in workout and per-game roster bonuses.