The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers will employ a lot of two-tight end sets in 2020 with Vance McDonald and Eric Ebron.
Explanation: The tight end position was one of the bigger question marks on the roster heading into the offseason, but the Steelers partially answered that by informally committing to McDonald after restructuring his contract and then signing Eric Ebron for $6 million per season over two years. The duo presents the possibility of fielding the best pair of pass-catching tight ends in team history.
Vance McDonald caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns for the Steelers in 2018. While Eric Ebron was with the Indianapolis Colts playing with Andrew Luck that same year, he caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Ebron isn’t going to put up 13 touchdowns again—only Antonio Brown has ever done that in team history—but a healthy Ben Roethlisberger—and a healthy Ebron—should see to it that he gets his attempts. Ladarius Green got his during his brief period of availability, who caught 18 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown in about five games in 2016.
Pittsburgh is not going to have such an elite trio of wide receivers that they constantly demand having all three on the field at all times. They won’t have much depth, either, so that will lead to more resting for one of the top three at a time. That will give more opportunities for two-tight end sets.
McDonald has never even played 700 snaps in a single season. Ebron barely hit that mark in one year. Neither of these players are every-done guys. Even though McDonald came in with a reputation for blocking—which slipped last year—he still wasn’t used in all situations, and Ebron certainly won’t be.
There may be select circumstances in which the Steelers want to exploit matchups in the passing game with their two tight ends, but by and large, they are going to favor their young wide receivers, especially with Diontae Johnson continuing to grow. And if James Washington continues to establish himself as a deep threat, that will add to the demand. Account for the possibility of depth in players like Deon Cain and an impending rookie, and you have enough firepower to keep 11 personnel on the field 70-plus percent of the time.