With an expected increased role for Vance McDonald next season, can he parlay that into being a legitimate starting option for the future?
Even the biggest Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens fans can tell you that the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is going to be loaded. The B’s, the emergence of Juju Smith-Schuster, the star-studded offensive line. Everybody wants a piece of the Steelers on their fantasy team.
However, nobody wants the Pittsburgh Steelers tight end on their fantasy team. The Steelers have never been a team that looks to their tight end to put up big fantasy numbers. Even back to the days of Heath Miller, he was known for the situational catch but was always a block first player.
Still, ever since the days of Heath Miller, the Pittsburgh Steelers have yet to find any type of asset at tight end. This season they walk into training camp with Jesse James, Vance McDonald, and Xavier Grimble as the likely culprits to make the roster.
Entering year four, it seems as though we know what we have in Jesse James at this point. If he cannot take a big step forward, he should be looked at as a second tight end. It will be interesting to see how the Pittsburgh Steelers maneuver contract negotiations with James as he enters the last season of his rookie deal.
Vance McDonald is signed on for one more season with two more cheap team options. He is on a team friendly deal. Entering his second season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team has mentioned that they would like to get him involved in the offense more. Is he the answer for the future?
Vance McDonald is not defined as an elite blocking option. However, one word to describe him would be an athletic blocker. This helps the Steelers offense in a big way.
It is not a direct correlation, but the offense is a much more efficient unit when Vance McDonald is on the field. He was on the field for 71 Le’Veon Bell rushing attempts. On those, Bell ran for 351 yards, 4.9 per attempt.
That means when McDonald was not on the field, Bell had 250 carries for 940 yards, 3.8 yards per attempt. That is a pretty stark contrast and could speak to some of the reasons in which Bell struggled to get going last season.
Jesse James is an unathletic blocker. McDonald is an athletic blocker. This presents the Steelers with a larger variety of blocking schemes to work with when McDonald is on the field.
Watch the play below. Brian Cushing is expecting to be picked up by Jesse James on the right. He steps up hard. The safety behind him sees him step down into the line and takes the outside of him, thinking that Bell will try to evade Cushing to the outside.
However, McDonald is able to get across the line of scrimmage, seal off Cushing, and Bell is able to read the safety and hit the hole to the inside.
Jesse James, on the other hand, does not get over quick enough on these types of running plays. The result is Bell getting eaten up in the backfield.
With one tight end on the field, whichever side James is lining up on is the heavy side. With McDonald, the team can still run with heavy personnel to each side of the field.
They can also burst more blocks into the open field. Again, McDonald being more athletic and agiler in space helps for him to extend longer runs for Bell.
Watch this play back in Week 5. You can see McDonald was motioning left. He stops, resets, and pulls back hard to the right. You can see on his opposite side James is lined up. As McDonald is pulling James misses on a chip of 97, Allen Bailey. From there, James looks to get into open space but is losing a battle with 59, Reggie Ragland. Fortunately, McDonald is back across the line and is leading Le’Veon Bell into the red zone by finishing off Ragland and helping push 49, Daniel Sorenson back enough to add in a few extra yards.
It is a stark contrast to see McDonald block in the open field compared to Jesse James.
There are two real questions when it comes to Vance McDonald being a serious contender to be a legitimate starting tight end. One is his health. McDonald has yet to be healthy for a full season, and played in just ten games last year.
The other is pass catching. In San Fransisco, McDonald had one of the worst drop rates in the NFL. Last season, he had drop issues as well and was 14-24 on targets.
However, the Steelers have been looking for a solution to his issues and may have found it. Towards the end of the season and into the playoffs the team looked to get the ball into the hands of McDonald in the short passing game. Screens, quick curls, flips to him while in motion.
The play below is a perfect example of how to get Vance McDonald involved in the passing game. He is strong in open space with the ball in his hands. Make getting the ball in his hands easy and he should thrive.
Without counting Week 17, McDonald has had the arrow pointing up in a big way over his last three games. In a thriller against the Baltimore Ravens, he caught four passes for 52 yards. He followed that up with four for 52 against the Texans. Then, in the playoffs, he showed up in a major way with 10 receptions for 112 yards. The perfect momentum booster to head into the season.
The Steelers have a myriad of big-play threats. Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Le’Veon Bell, even James Washington is a big play candidate next season. With all of this floating around, a quick dump off and a burst into the open field by Vance McDonald is the perfect complement to top the entire offense.
It will take health. However, this is a player who is 27 years old and is under team control for three seasons beyond 2018. He has proven value in the running game. The team may have found a spark for him in the passing game. Everything is pointing to Vance McDonald being the future tight end in Pittsburgh. It will be on him to earn that standing now.