Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 13.
TIGHT ENDS (6)
Xavier Grimble, Bucky Hodges, Jesse James, Vance McDonald, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson
(Free Agent Scorecard: 2; 1 unrestricted – Jesse James; 1 restricted – Xavier Grimble)
A LAST LOOK AT 2018
The Steelers acquired Vance McDonald plus a fifth-round draft pick from the 49ers in exchange for a fourth-round pick on the eve of the 2017 regular season, and by the end of the 2018 season that was looking like a very shrewd move. After missing the 2018 opener in Cleveland with a foot injury, McDonald caught at least one pass in the remaining 15 regular season games to finish with 50 receptions for 610 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers might not look like much on their own, but it should be remembered that both Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster posted 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons.
Jesse James' 30 catches were the fewest since his rookie season, but that had more to do with McDonald's emergence as the clear No. 1 at the position than any deficiencies that had developed in James' overall game. Xavier Grimble caught six passes for 86 yards, but his 2018 season forever will be marred by his fumble out of the end zone early in a seven-point loss to the Broncos in Denver.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Vance McDonald's production in 2018 represented career highs in catches (50 vs. 30) and yards (610 vs. 391). His four touchdowns in 2018 tied a career high.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2019
After a shaky 2017 season, McDonald put together one that cemented him as the team's No. 1 tight end, and that came in time to match an up-tick in his contract paying him as such. According to spotrac.com, McDonald is due $4.2 million, $5.5 million, and $5.5 million over the next three years of his deal with the Steelers. With the uncertain status of Antonio Brown, McDonald's role as a receiver could be increasing, and he has shown himself to be capable of handling that.
James can become an unrestricted free agent, and while the Steelers should want him back, their level of interest in him financially figures to be more as a complement to McDonald. That shouldn't be taken to mean James isn't a nice piece of the puzzle and one the Steelers would be wise to try to keep, but there undoubtedly is a number where the team's interest will dry up. If James finds that the grass is greener somewhere else and decides to pursue that option, the Steelers will be left looking for a replacement because the offense frequently deploys a personnel group that includes multiple tight ends and they shouldn't automatically assume Xavier Grimble, Bucky Hodges, or Kevin Rader can replace James.