TE Vance McDonald 'absolutely' wants to be back with Steelers, but future 'uncertain'
Vance McDonald stood near his locker in a far corner of the Steelers' locker room at Heinz Field late Sunday afternoon.
Though the Steelers' season had just ended with a disheartening playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, McDonald had a career day with 10 catches for 112 yards.
That allowed the veteran tight end, perhaps more than most, to harbor eager anticipation for next season.
"You can only be optimistic," McDonald said. "To have an entire year of working with and developing chemistry with Ben (Roethlisberger)? It would be a lot of fun."
A trade acquisition 12 days prior to the regular-season opener, McDonald has good reason to believe his gradual immersion into the Steelers' offense this season would continue and carry over into 2018 to the point that he would be even more of a featured weapon for Roethlisberger.
But will he even get that chance? McDonald doesn't sound entirely convinced.
"Everything is pretty uncertain right now," McDonald said when asked about his future with the Steelers. "I embrace whatever happens. Of course, there's always going to be change, so whatever happens, happens."
According to what was widely reported at the time of the three-year contract extension he signed with the San Francisco 49ers late in 2016, McDonald is due a $3.7 million salary that becomes fully guaranteed on April 1. McDonald's contract carries a $4.3 million salary-cap hit in 2018.
The combination of the early guarantee and the relatively high cap number for a player who has not definitively earned status as a No. 1 tight end might mean McDonald doesn't come back with the Steelers. It also wouldn't be a surprise if they invested a draft pick in a tight end, particularly with Jesse James — the starter the past two seasons — entering the final year of his contract.
Though he was sidelined for six regular-season games as the result of four separate injuries, McDonald was productive at times during the relatively rare instances he was healthy. During the final four games he played with Roethlisberger (counting the playoffs), McDonald had 20 receptions for 232 yards. He had at least four catches or a touchdown during each of them.
Over the final seven games he played, McDonald had 24 catches — 10 of which went for 15 yards or more. James, by comparison, had only eight catches of 15-plus yards all season (in 17 games). So, McDonald brings a downfield passing element that's been missing from the Steelers' tight ends — something they tried to address in the botched free-agent signing of Ladarius Green two years ago.
McDonald said that it wasn't until the two-week layoff between the regular-season finale and postseason opener that he was finally healthy enough and had a strong enough understanding of the offense to form an on-field bond with Roethlisberger. It showed against Jacksonville.
"That bye week was when things started to open up between Ben and I, and that gets you really excited," McDonald said. "You don't expect it to stop right now and would love to allow it to continue to build it now that I have had that time with him and to get past running just basic stuff."
McDonald joined holdovers James and Xavier Grimble in the Steelers' tight end room this season. The three combined for 62 catches for 592 yards and five touchdowns.
"We did the best we could to really help Vance get acclimated as fast as he could, coming from a different team," Grimble said. "I've done it before; it's always tough learning. It's almost religion what you learn there and then you've got to come here, flip it and do something else. I think he did the best he could. He had to battle some injuries, which could have happened to anybody, but I think he did good, if you think about the circumstances."
McDonald had a quick and definitive answer when asked if he would like to come back with the Steelers for the 2018 season.
"Of course. Absolutely," he said. "I wouldn't blink an eye. I'd be back here before anyone else.
"It's so fun here. It was an exciting year. We expected to play next week. It stinks we don't get to play next week. It's kind of a bad dream."
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.