Another in a position-by-position series in advance of the start of free agency on March 14.
A LAST LOOK AT 2017
Jesse James has turned out to be a very nice addition as a former fifth-round draft pick from Penn State, but the fact the Steelers don’t view him as a No. 1 tight end became clear when the team swung a trade in late August with the San Francisco 49ers for Vance McDonald. The specifics of the deal were these: the Steelers acquired McDonald and a 2018 fifth-round draft pick from the 49ers in exchange for a 2018 fourth-round pick. The reason for the trade was revealed when Mike Tomlin said during the preseason the team’s existing group of tight ends were "not consistently varsity enough."
McDonald – 6-foot-4, 267 pounds – brought size and athleticism, but he also was inactive for six games in 2017 because of injuries. He began to flash some of what had attracted the Steelers to him late in the regular season when he had four catches for 52 yards against the Ravens on Dec. 10 and then four catches for 52 yards against Houston on Christmas Day. But it was in the playoffs where McDonald had his best game – 10 catches for 112 yards – against the Jaguars in the Divisional Round. For the season, McDonald played in 10 games and finished with 14 catches for 188 yards (13.4 average) and one touchdown. He missed five games because of injury – four with an ankle injury and one with a shoulder injury.
Jesse James’ third NFL season was his best statistically, with 43 catches for 372 yards (8.7 average) and three touchdowns, but to a large degree his season, as well as the team’s, will come to be remembered by one catch Al Riveron decided he didn’t make.
ONE STAT THAT STANDS OUT
Since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, Steelers tight ends have been voted to four Pro Bowls. Steelers placekickers have been voted to six.
A LOOK AHEAD TO 2018
Before the trade for McDonald, the Steelers didn’t believe they had a No. 1 tight end on their roster, and that belief is what led them to make the trade with the 49ers. McDonald’s injury situation during the 2017 season is somewhat troubling, especially when the five games he missed with the Steelers because of injuries are added to the 16 he missed during his four seasons with the 49ers. According to published reports, McDonald’s cap hit will be $4.3 million in 2018 and $5.1 million in 2019, neither of which are ridiculous numbers for the No. 1 tight end, if that’s in fact what he turns out to be.
If McDonald lives up to expectations, that would allow James to settle into a role that’s more comfortable for him and it also would remove any urgency to use a premium pick in the upcoming draft on this position. While the Steelers remain intrigued by what McDonald can bring to the offense in 2018, which seemingly would remove any chance of moves made during free agency or in the early rounds of the draft to address the position, don’t discount the possibility there could be some change at the bottom of the depth chart. Jake McGee, who was signed after training camp started last summer after an injury to Scott Orndoff, was impressive as a blocker and spent 2017 on the team’s practice squad. There is a spot on the depth chart here for a player who is a kick-butt blocker, and McGee could turn out to be that guy.