Everywhere I go online this offseason, I see Steelers fans ready to part ways with tight end Vance McDonald: and for the life of me, I can’t understand why.
Okay, I see their reasoning, but it’s not logical. Most of the critics claim that McDonald, who missed two games in 2019, is “injury prone”.
Yes, you read that correctly: a player who missed two of the Steelers 16 regular season games, is apparently an injury risk and can’t be relied upon.
If you believe that’s true, I’m about to prove why it’s not. Actually, claiming that McDonald is “injury prone” is preposterous. If we were talking about his first season with the Steelers, back in 2017, you may have an argument. McDonald missed six games and was largely ineffective.
In 2018, he missed a single game; in route to becoming one of the most popular Steelers players following a posterizing stiff arm of a Tampa Bay defensive back in the second game of the season. That same fan base has turned into a vicious mob wanting to do away with the tight end this offseason in order to save a few dollars on the salary cap.
Salary is not an issue
I already visited how that was a bad idea, with McDonald averaging somewhere in the middle of the league in salary at his position. The amount he would he would save ($4 million – with $1.4 million in dead cap) isn’t even as much as Detroit is paying former Steelers tight end Jesse James in 2020. That is, $5 million: to be a backup.
Furthermore, McDonald isn’t even in the top ten of tight end salaries entering free agency. He’s not as overpaid as some may have you believe. Recently released Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who is far more injury prone and will remind fans of Ladarius Green's concussion issues, missed 17 of his last 48 games while averaging cap hits of $5.7m, $10.2m, and $9.6m over those three seasons.
LA Chargers tight end Hunter Henry, who some speculate could hit free agency, was paid out $2 million in the final year of his rookie deal as a second round pick: that would eat up half of the "McDonald savings" if the Steelers sought a replacement in the NFL Draft: a dangerous prospect, because now you're relying on an inexperienced player to become an overnight starter, which doesn't always work well. (See: Maxx Williams, Hayden Hurst.)
I should probably mention that the Chargers are expected to franchise tag Henry too, which comes at a cost of a cool $11 million this season, which could be the ballpark of his market cost and something the Steelers can't afford. For those fans who think Henry is remotely close to being an option for McDonald, he's also injury prone, having missed at least one game in each of his four pro seasons including all of 2018 and four games in 2019.
McDonald is actually reliable
Having only missed 3 of the last 32 games for the Steelers, McDonald is fairly reliable. Consider that Steelers great Heath Miller only played a full 16 games six out of his eleven NFL seasons. But that’s not where the comparisons between McDonald and Miller end.
Statistically, McDonald's salary isn't an issue either. After a lackluster offensive display by the Steelers in 2019, which can be blamed on two inexperienced quarterbacks playing, McDonald was asked to block, and wasn’t heavily involved in the passing game.
That should change in 2020 with the return of Ben Roethlisberger. With Ben as his quarterback, McDonald flashed big play capabilities. Yet many consider his stats to not be “enough” to merit his status as a Steelers starter. McDonald only has a single regular season game with 100 yards receiving, they say.
Heath Miller, however, had a span of four seasons without one 100-yard receiving game from 2010 to 2013. His drought lasted from December 20th, 2009 until October 26th, 2014 between 100-yard games. (McDonald has one 100-yard postseason game to his resume, while Miller never had one in 15 playoff appearances.)
In fact, Miller’s season averages per 16 games are around 54 catches for 597 yards and 4 touchdowns.
McDonald’s aren’t far off with 42 receptions, 439 yards and 3 touchdowns. If you exclude the Ben-less 2019, McDonald’s averages increase to 511 yards on 41 catches (1 less) and 2.5 touchdowns.
It’s a strange paradigm, but shows that Steelers tight ends have always operated differently. McDonald’s numbers also best Jesse James, which isn’t too difficult given he was mostly considered a backup for most of his Steelers tenure.
Other Steelers starters missed more games
All of the above is what has me puzzled as to why Steelers Nation would want to let such a physical, talented player go? I could name at least five other Steelers starters who missed as much, or more, time than McDonald did in 2019. They are:
- Ben Roethlisberger (14)
- James Conner (6)
- JuJu Smith-Schuster (4)
- Maurkice Pouncey (3)
- Ramon Foster (2)
While you could say Ben was no longer a starter after Week 2, his replacement, Mason Rudolph, also missed two full games due to injuries in 2019 as well. I’d love to say some fans aren’t calling for the heads of the aforementioned players too, but I would be lying. (That’s why I call them “fans”.)
Who played the most offensive snaps?
Then there’s a nice trivia night question you can share with your friends: aside from offensive linemen (who generally play the entire game – and season when healthy) who had the most snaps on the Steelers offense in 2019?
That would be Vance McDonald.
That’s right. The guy who is often injured played more snaps than all but the five starting offensive linemen. And of those five, as noted above, only three played the full 16 games – the only three Steelers on offense to do so.
In fact, no other Steelers offensive player other than McDonald and the O-Line logged more than 700 snaps!
I understand that statistic is due to injuries to other players… but isn’t that why this is being discussed?
Therefore, I would ask that fans keep their cool when it comes to retaining Vance McDonald in 2020. He’s not as injury prone as others would have you believe. He doesn’t save a lot of cap space by releasing him. There’s no other tight end currently signed to the Steelers roster with even one NFL start. (Nick Vannett is an unrestricted free agent. Zach Gentry appeared in four games, but was not a starter.)
For all of those reasons and more, we should expect McDonald to be a Steeler going forward.