PITTSBURGH — When the Steelers traded a fourth-round pick for tight end Vance McDonald in advance of the 2017 season, he figured to support, not supplant incumbent starter Jesse James.
Through two seasons, he did just that, grabbing 14 balls for 188 yards and making 50 catches for 610 yards and four touchdowns in 2018.
This season, though, James has moved on, signing a free agent contract with the Detroit Lions.
It’s now McDonald’s room, and he has a newcomer to work into the fold as a compliment in rookie fifth-round pick Zach Gentry.
Gentry is battling with a pair of first-year players in Kevin Rader and Christian Scotland-Williamson to join McDonald and Xavier Grimble on the roster this fall, and so far, he’s getting positive remarks from his veteran mentor.
“As a rookie, you’re spending so many hours here trying to figure out the offense and the flow and how we operate,” McDonald said. “You’re not even playing football, you’re trying to ace the test. If we get to that point where he knows the playbook and he’s comfortable enough to slow down, I think he’ll definitely find his stride.”
The third tight end on the team isn’t usually a camp battle that fuels a lot of interest, but Gentry’s 6-foot-8 frame and untapped potential after spending just three seasons at tight end make him an intriguing target.
Furthermore, without Antonio Brown’s 104 receptions, it’s a pretty open question what the Steelers offense will look like in 2019, and with two experienced pass-catchers in McDonald and Grimble and an interesting rookie, the tight end position is just as likely to pick up the slack as anywhere else.
“Absolutely,” McDonald said. “Not necessarily playing or calling the game differently, but the things that AB was capable of doing, he was a freak. He’s so good. I think Ben is the best quarterback that will allow us to take that piece that AB was given each game and allow it to be split, whether it’s the tight ends or the receivers. … It’ll be fun and interesting to see how he can create it.”
So acknowledging Brown’s talent level, and that of departed running back Le’Veon Bell, how can the Steelers’ offense fare better in 2019 than it did in 2017 and 2018?
“Because we have to be,” McDonald said. “That’d sound really good if I just left it at that. Great players are great players, but at the end of the day, it takes 11 guys to do the job. If you do that, I think we have the guys that don’t necessarily have Brown and Bell on the backs of their jerseys, but man, if you can play the positions, you can do what you’re asked to do, you can make plays.”