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.”
Steelers to Host ex-Vikings OT Aviante Collins for Visit
The Steelers will host free agent tackle Aviante Collins for a visit, according to the NFL transactions page for Thursday.
Collins, 27, spent the last four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings after joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of TCU in 2017.
Collins played in three games in 2017 and two in 2019 for the Vikings, and spent all of the 2020 season on the practice squad, except for a one-week elevation in Week 11, in which he did not play.
The 6-foot-4, 292-pound tackle its a free agent after the Vikings decided to allow his practice squad contract to expire at the end of the season.
The Steelers have several free agents at the tackle position, including longtime starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 2019 starting right tackle Matt Feiler and 2020 starting right tackle Zach Banner, who are unrestricted free agents, and backup Jerald Hawkins, who is a restricted free agent.
The Steelers have Chukwuma Okorafor under contract and Anthony Coyle, Jarron Jones, John Leglue and Brandon Walton signed to futures contract.
Steelers, Zach Banner Donate to Tree of Life Synagogue
Offensive lineman Zach Banner and the Pittsburgh Steelers have pledged a donation to the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill as part of the Steelers 2020 Social Justice Grant program.
The congregation was attacked during a mass shooting own Oct. 27, 2018 that killed 11 people and wounded six others, the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States.
The shooting stuck with Banner, who was a rookie on the team at the time. After Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson made an anti-semitic post on social media, Banner responded with a video post.
“We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times,” Banner said in the video. “I want to preach to the Black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and talk about elevating ourselves.”
This video is to transition from the incident, and move forward as a community. Not to harp on @DeSeanJackson10 mistake, but to progress by educating ourselves. We can’t move forward while allowing ourselves to leave another minority race in the dark.#Equality pic.twitter.com/MnLnCCYzQL
— Zach Banner (@ZBNFL) July 8, 2020
The video led to Banner becoming something of a fan favorite to the Jewish community.
“Mr. Banner spoke up when others didn’t and we appreciate that,” Barb Feige, executive director of Tree of Life, said to Steelers.com “The fact that he mentioned Tree of Life and the horrific shooting that happened there and how much it impacted him was very meaningful. We are very aware the shooting had an impact beyond our congregation, our Jewish community. The ripple effect was felt. Everybody felt something about it. For Mr. Banner to articulate that, and join our fight against anti-Semitism, was very, very special, very meaningful.”
Report: Steelers to Interview Los Angeles Chargers QB Coach Pep Hamilton
The Steelers have requested to interview Los Angeles Chargers quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton for their vacant offensive coordinator position, according to a report by Josina Anderson.
Hamilton, 46, just finished his first season as quarterbacks coach with the Chargers, where he helped develop rookie quarterback Justin Hebert, who was named the PFWA NFL Rookie of the Year.
Hamilton has previously been an offensive coordinator at the NFL level with the Indianapolis Colts from 2013-15, where he led a resurgence around quarterback Andrew Luck.
Hamilton was the head coach of the DC Defenders of the XFL in 2020, the assistant head coach and passing game coordinator for Michigan in 2017-18 and was assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2016. He has also been an NFL assistant with the New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears.
Hamilton is the third person confirmed to have interviewed for the position, along with former Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson and Steelers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada, who is expected to earn the position.