No matter what happens otherwise, there is going to be uncertainty about what the Pittsburgh Steelers can and will do until at least next week, because that is the earliest point at which it can be known whether or not the 2020 season will operate under the terms of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement—and the stipulations that come under the final year of a deal—or the new proposal that the NFLPA is currently voting on.
If approved, the NFL will see labor peace for the next decade, simply because there will be nothing the union can do about it, as there are no opt-out clauses. By clearly random coincidence, there never seem to be opt-out clauses for the deals the owners are quick to approve, but there are for the once they are most hesitant about (i.e. the 2006 CBA).
But I digress. The point is the fate of a number of specific players remains in limbo. One of the most curious cases would be for tight end Vance McDonald, regarding whom the team has until Tuesday to decide whether or not to pick up his 2020 option. If picked up, he will be owed a $5.5 million base salary, and will have another $900,000 he can earn via roster and workout bonuses.
Were the team to decline to pick up McDonald’s option, they would clear over $5 million in cap space after roster displacement; however, they would also be losing their starting tight end, with nothing else to show for it at the position. This is why McDonald would be the most difficult of the at-risk candidates to part with this offseason.
Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at least, believes that McDonald will still be on the roster this year, as per his answer to a question on that topic during his chat earlier this week. He suggested that perhaps the team could “convince him to take a pay cut if they’re really up against the cap. But I think he’ll be on the roster” in training camp.
If he is on the roster in training camp, then it’s a given he’s going to make the 53-man roster, though (and obviously that they’ll pick up his option). It’s hard to conjure up a scenario in which that is not the case, when you consider that the only other tight ends on the roster have a combined one NFL reception between Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, and Christian Scotland-Williamson.
McDonald looked as though he were blossoming into a tight end with Pro Bowl potential during the 2018 season, but he did significant steps back last season, to which he readily admitted. Some of that can be attituded to the absence of Ben Roethlisberger, but he knows a lot of it was about his own health and performance as well, and that does put him at risk. With that knowledge, it is possible he could be amenable to a pay cut.