In breaking news this morning that was not as surprising as it might seem on the surface, the Steelers traded away their 2018 4th-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for tight end Vance McDonald and a 2018 5th-round pick.
Why this trade should not be surprising for a few reasons. For starters, the 49ers have been looking to move McDonald since before the 2017 NFL Draft after the new John Lynch regime took over. Additionally, the Steelers’ tight ends have been struggling to look anything other than average, with none of them being the well-rounded tight end that the team has lacked since the retirement of Heath Miller. McDonald will hopefully be a step in the right direction for the Steelers.
Jesse James is pegged to be the starter right now but when you look closely, he still has a long way to go to develop his game. He has improved each year as a receiver and blocker but has been largely underwhelming this preseason. David Johnson has been the teams bonafide blocker in the run game and that is about where his talents on the field end. Xavier Grimble, a player many expected to make large strides during the offseason and preseason, has looked lost in all but Week 3 against the Colts. Jake McGee, a new fan favorite, still is a prime candidate to make the practice squad this season. So what does McDonald offer for the Steelers offense?
Whenever examining his ability as a receiver, it is easy to see some issues that might scare fans away, namely his drop rate during his career. As Jeff Deeney of PFF pointed out on Twitter today, McDonald has the highest drop rate among tight ends from 2013-2016:
— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) August 29, 2017
However, this stat is not 100% indicative of the improvement that McDonald has shown over his career. Deeney pointed out towards the end of last season that McDonald has seen a solid decrease in his drop rate over the past season:
Vance McDonald drop rate:
— Jeff Deeney (@PFF_Jeff) November 30, 2016
This inconsistency as a receiver should not define his ability as a player, however. The improvement is there to only grow in this area, especially when you factor in the offense McDonald will have around him compared to what he has had in four years with the 49ers. What fans should focus on is McDonald’s big play ability.
When you look at McDonald, he appears to be a typical inline blocking tight end at 6’4″, 267 lbs. But when you take a closer look at how he was used at Rice and with the 49ers, it is easy to see how often the two teams exploited his surprising athletic ability. At the 2013 NFL Combine, McDonald posted impressive numbers, clocking a 4.69s 40, 31 reps on the bench press, 119″ broad jump, 7.08s 3-cone shuttle, and an 11.73 60-yard shuttle. On top of that, McDonald also measured in with 34 3/8″ arms, making his bench numbers even more impressive. While he doesn’t possess the same straight-line speed that former Steelers’ tight end Ladarius Green had, he is still a deceptively quick receiver, especially in open space. This quickness (especially in short areas on the line or in the redzone) paired with great route running skills makes him a dangerous threat all over the field. Jimmy Norkewicz of SCU showed all of McDonald’s touchdowns from 2016 and one thing stands out: the guy can score on long plays:
— Jimmy Norkewicz (@dorkewicz) August 29, 2017
These long plays that he had last season become even more impressive when you consider the company that McDonald joined on the two long touchdown receptions:
Vance McDonald (2016) & HOFer Shannon Sharpe (1997) are the only TEs to have 2 65+ yard TD catches in a single season in the past 20 years pic.twitter.com/mqhnXTtSuj
— Randall Liu (@RLiuNFL) August 29, 2017
Not even just with these touchdowns, but every play in general that McDonald gets his hands on the ball creates an opportunity for solid YAC, something that the Steelers desire from their receivers. This is something that none of the tight ends on the roster before the trade were able to do effectively, with the exception of maybe Grimble.
The biggest impact that fans can expect to see from McDonald, though, will be from his work in the redzone; more specifically, his ability to succeed with contested catches. An area that James has struggled is his ability to come down with the ball in the redzone or in close spaces on the field. This has not been an issue for McDonald, as he routinely comes down with these types of passes with his blend of size and strength. This effectiveness in the redzone paired with his big play ability makes for a tantalizing player to add to the Steelers already deep arsenal of weapons.
McDonald’s niche with the team is about as close to a well-round tight end as you can get. Throughout his career, he has been asked to do it all for the offense that he was a part of. His continued growth so far should be an indicator that he could continue to get better with players like Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Le’Veon Bell around him. With the combination of McDonald’s ability as a do-it-all tight end, James’ ability as a short yardage chain mover (and likely #2 tight end, a spot he’s likely to be more comfortable with), and Johnson’s ability as a top tier blocker, the Steelers might have just found a way to make a somewhat complete tight end group.
McDonald will hopefully become the “varsity” player that Mike Tomlin wants to complete this offense.
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