Will veteran Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald still be on the roster come March 18, the start of the 2020 NFL league year? It’s possible because the Steelers just don’t have much in the way of depth at the tight end position and because McDonald’s option for the 2020 season won’t be fully guaranteed even if it is exercised a little more than two weeks now. Regardless of whatever happens with McDonald and his status with the Steelers in the coming weeks, the tight end made clear in an interview with steelers.com that he wasn’t happy with his 2019 performance.
“I think I took some steps backwards unfortunately as a player,” McDonald, said, according to Teresa Varley. “I don’t even need a coach to give me criticism because I have too much of it already. I think of it as having almost that edge in 2018, being known for having that play with the stiff arm, the run after whenever I would have a reception. I didn’t have as many of those. It makes me want to attack this offseason and next season that much harder.”
McDonald certainly did have a down 2019 season as the former second-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers only caught 38 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns in the 14 games that he played in. Not only did McDonald not put up very good receiving stats in 2019, his run blocking was extremely poor overall and nowhere close to what it’s been in previous years.
The Steelers offense certainly had quite a bit to overcome last season as a result of injuries to players at several key positions and McDonald recently acknowledged that fact in his interview with the Steelers official website.
“I think offensively it was a much different team,” McDonald said. “It forced players to take a hard look at where we are, our personnel, the ever-changing lineup because of injuries and so forth. They can all be excuses, but at the same time they all present specific things we have to overcome and adjust to. It took some adjusting.
“I think overall there was a stretch where we had a lot of success as a team. For me looking back and analyzing it all, I wish I would have done more.”
Ahead of the 2019 season there were quite a few people expecting McDonald to have his best year ever. After all, he had set career highs in 2018 having caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns and really looked in-tune with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Those high expectations for 2019, however, started to go away very quickly after Roethlisberger was lost for the remainder of the season after being just six quarters into it. McDonald noted in the most-recent interview that the loss of Roethlisberger to injury was quite challenging for him
“That is something that you can’t measure,” said McDonald of the Steelers loss of Roethlisberger to injury early in the season. “I like reframing the term excuses. It’s an adjustment, a very real adjustment that is very hard to measure. When you do measure it, things didn’t change. You have to get a feel for a guy. It makes it tough for a player.”
Not only did McDonald have to adjust to another quarterback in Mason Rudolph just six quarters into the 2019 season, he ultimately had to adjust to his backup as well as rookie undrafted free agent quarterback Devlin Hodges was on the field leading the offense in the second half of the team’s Week 5 game and again as the starter the following week. Hodges eventually replaced Rudolph again come Week 10 and through most of the team’s Week 16 game. McDonald talk some about the challenges that came with working with two other quarterbacks during the 2019 season that weren’t Roethlisberger.
“I think the timing is the biggest variable, the second week of the season Ben gets hurt,” said McDonald. “You go into the third week of the season and we don’t have the luxury of having training camp, offseason, or a bye week or anything like that. It’s a very quick transition. It affects everyone in the building.
You just think of what it did to Randy’s (Fichtner) play-calling. He had a guy he was with for more than a decade. All of sudden you have to restructure and think of things like what are my quarterback’s strengths, what are the things he is comfortable with. How does he handle himself in certain game situations, in a two-minute offense? That trickles all the way down to players, especially with the key players at each position. You have to accelerate everything, and it makes it tough. At the same time, you are in a very high-pressured situation because you are trying to win a football game.”
Will McDonald get a chance to redeem himself as a member of the Steelers in 2020? Unlike most, I think there’s a good chance of that happening and especially if McDonald is still under contract with the Steelers past March 18. McDonald is scheduled to earn $6.4 million in base salary and bonuses in 2020. Not picking up his 2020 option by the start of the new league year a few weeks from now would only result in a little more than a $5 million salary cap savings in 2020 after roster displacement takes place.
Should McDonald ultimately be part of the 2020 Steelers, he plans on using what he learned last season to potentially get him back to producing the way he did in 2018. In short, it sounds like he’s ready to move on for good from his poor 2019 season.
“Whenever you are in a position where there is more…you want to make a play so bad that you start doing more and you end up trying so hard you end up going backwards,” McDonald said. “I had a little bit of that this year. I say all of that to say I need to stay more singularly focused in myself and abilities rather than fanning out and pressing to be something I don’t necessarily need to be. I need to be my own player and accept my strengths and weaknesses and move forward from there.”