Roster Turnover 2021: TE Vance McDonald

Roster turnover is an inevitability in this league, but the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster has changed considerably since the end of last season, with many players who have been important to this franchise now gone, either retired, in limbo, or in another uniform. As we wind down the time until training camp opens, it feels appropriate to acknowledge the old faces that we’ll no longer be seeing on the sidelines this year.

That includes Pro Bowlers and former high draft picks, as well as undrafted free agents of varying accomplishment. Four losses along the offensive line, multiple departures at linebacker and in the secondary, and other changes mixed in, will make for a rather different roster.

All the same, there are the steady presences that remain: the Ben Roethlisbergers, the T.J. Watts, the Cameron Heywards. Who will be the next long-term faces? Minkah Fitzpatrick will certainly be one. What about Cameron Sutton? Zach Banner? Kevin Dotson? Devin Bush? When will their names be included in this retrospective?

TE Vance McDonald

8 seasons (4 with Steelers)

The sudden and surprise retirement of tight end Vance McDoanld left the Steelers in a situation in which they had no choice but to address the position. Perhaps that was the final push that was necessary for them to finally meaningfully invest in the draft, using a second-round pick a couple of months later on Penn State product Pat Freiermuth.

Originally acquired via trade from the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 for a swap of mid-round picks, McDonald battled injuries through his first season in Pittsburgh. He had a breakout season a year later, of sorts. He caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four scores, all career-highs, but that would prove to be his peak as a receiver.

Of course, he wasn’t strictly a receiving tight end, as he was a focal point as a blocker as well. But his performance in this phase diminished over time, in part due to injury, especially in 2019. Last year, with the signing of Eric Ebron as the receiving tight end, he fully re-dedicated himself to the blocking role.

It wasn’t until after the 2020 season that he announced to some teammates that he was going to retire, even though he had already decided before the season began that it would be his last, telling reporters that the pandemic helped put things into perspective as he begins his next chapter.

His decision helped force the Steelers to move on to their next chapter at the tight end position as well, with Freiermuth viewed as their next starter. Ebron is only under contract for one more year. It’s not clear if he is in their plans for 2021. But he looks to be a fitting successor to McDonald as a multi-dimensional player with an even higher upside.

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