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Steelers

Steelers offseason positional outlook: Tight ends

Chris Adamski
| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, 8:03 a.m.
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald (89) catches an 11-yard pass for a touchdown over Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith, right, during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald (89) catches an 11-yard pass for a touchdown over Jacksonville Jaguars outside linebacker Telvin Smith, right, during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a 12-part series breaking down the Pittsburgh Steelers at each position in the offseason. All salary-cap information courtesy spotrac.com.

For a period of several years about a decade ago, typically tight-lipped general manager Kevin Colbert would be very open about one thing regarding an upcoming draft: the Pittsburgh Steelers would not be taking a quarterback or tight end early.

Heath Miller was that reliable — and that good — for the team at tight end for more than a decade. But with Miller’s retirement about three years in the rear-view mirror, the position is uncertain as the Steelers.

Just one tight end who appeared in a 2018 regular-season game at tight end is under contract for next season: Vance McDonald. Co-starter Jesse James has completed his four-year entry-level contract, and No. 3 Xavier Grimble will be a restricted free agent.

Even McDonald carries some offseason intrigue: The salary-cap hit for his contract more than doubles from $2.37 million to $5.78 million this season. The coaching staff, though, likes the playmaking McDonald can bring. He’s been a solid NFL player, with the caveat being “when healthy,” and in 2018 McDonald tied a career high by appearing in 15 of the Steelers’ 16 games.

James, who went to South Allegheny and Penn State, seems destined for a new NFL address next season. An underrated contributor to the Steelers’ offense since he was a fifth-round pick in 2015, James never has missed an NFL game because of injury and has the league’s third-longest active streak among tight ends at 56 consecutive games played. He’s made himself a reliable blocker and always was a capable receiver.

But with so much of the salary cap devoted to McDonald and James likely to be get starter-level money somewhere, it wouldn’t seem there’s a clear path for him to remain with the Steelers.

Assuming that’s so, where do the Steelers go from there? Bucky Hodges is athletic (he’s a former college quarterback) and has a year in the team’s system (he spent 2018 on the practice squad). But he would seem more a No. 3 option than replacing James as something of a No. 1A. Christian Scotland-Williamson is a nice story as a British former rugby star pursuing his American football dream via the NFL’s international pathway program, but he remains raw.

Expect the Steelers to peruse the bargain bin of the free-agent market at tight end and/or invest a relatively high draft choice at the position if James is not retained. They added former Pine-Richland and Youngstown State player Kevin Rader to a futures contract Wednesday. He spent last summer in the Green Bay Packers camp.

•••

Offseason outlook: Tight ends

Returners

• Vance McDonald, 3 years left on contract, $5.78 million cap hit for 2019

• Bucky Hodges, practice squad

• Christian Scotland-Williamson, practice squad

• Jake McGee, injured reserve

•••

Free agents

• Jesse James, unrestricted, $1.959 million cap hit in 2018

• Xavier Grimble, restricted, $630,000 cap hit in 2018

Coming Friday: Offensive tackles

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here .

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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