Steelers OTA preview: Who is behind Vance McDonald at tight end?
Almost five months after playing their last game, the Pittsburgh Steelers are about to put a full roster of players on the field as they ramp up preparations for the 2019 season.
The third and final phase of the NFL’s offseason conditioning program begins Tuesday for the Steelers with the first of 10 organized team activities (OTAs).
Phase 3, as it is known, spans four weeks, with the final one featuring the team’s three-day mandatory minicamp. Players cannot wear pads except to cover the knees and elbows. Helmets can be worn, and teams can participate in 11-on-11 drills but no hitting is permitted.
Heading into the start of OTAs, the Tribune-Review will take a daily look at a position that will bear watching once the entire 91-man roster convenes at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Today: Tight end
Who’s back: Vance McDonald, Xavier Grimble, Christian Scotland-Williamson*
*International player/roster exemption
After battling injuries in 2017, McDonald made 14 starts last year and played in all but one game. Not surprisingly, he set career highs with 50 catches and 610 yards while tying a personal best with four touchdowns. He returns as the starter. As he begins his fourth season with the Steelers, Grimble enters OTAs as the backup for the first time in his career. Scotland-Williamson is entering his second year as part of the NFL’s International Pathway Program and doesn’t count against the offseason roster limit.
Who’s gone: Jesse James, Bucky Hodges, Jake McGee, Ryan Malleck
The biggest positional void came when James accepted a four-year, $22.6 million contract from the Detroit Lions in free agency. He was the backup the previous three seasons. Hodges was waived during the draft after spending last season on the practice squad. McGee and Malleck weren’t brought back after spending the year on injured reserve.
Who’s new: Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Trevor Wood
Gentry, the team’s fifth-round draft pick, presents an inviting target at 6-foot-8. He still is fairly new to the position after starting his career at Michigan as a quarterback. Rader provides a local feel-good story. He graduated from Pine-Richland and attended Youngstown State. He is a first-year player who was with the Green Bay Packers last offseason. Wood is an undrafted free agent from Texas A&M who doubles as a long snapper.
What’s at stake?: McDonald is the unquestioned starter, and, unless his injury problems resurface, he won’t be challenged for his job. He could become an even larger part of the offseason in the wake of the Antonio Brown trade. The question is finding someone who adequately can replace James. Grimble had just six catches last year, and one resulted in the infamous fumble through the end zone that cost the Steelers a touchdown against the Denver Broncos. Gentry will get a chance to state his case at OTAs.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .