Vance McDonald stands out for Steelers among inexperienced TE group
When asked Saturday whether any of his tight ends has stood out in training camp, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin offered a blunt assessment.
“I like Vance McDonald,” he said, “but you guys know that.”
Tomlin wasn’t denigrating any of the other five tight ends on the roster. It’s just McDonald is the only known commodity the Steelers have at the position, as he will enter his third season as the team’s starter. Aside from backup Xavier Grimble, no other Steelers tight end has caught a pass in an NFL game.
McDonald is coming off a season in which he set career highs with 50 catches for 610 yards in 15 games, while tying a career-high with four touchdown catches. His most memorable play of the season came in Week 3 at Tampa Bay when McDonald displayed the physicality required at the position, delivering a brutal stiff arm to safety Chris Conte en route to a 75-yard touchdown.
It was only the second time in seven NFL seasons McDonald played in as many as 15 games. He didn’t miss a game after sitting out the season opener in Cleveland with a foot injury.
“It was exciting,” McDonald said. “It’s something I definitely want to build on going into this year. Being available was the best thing for me. I want to be more available (this) season.”
Already a fierce blocker, reliable pass catcher and determined runner — remember he denied a touchdown in Chicago in 2017 when he chased down the returner at the goal line after a blocked field goal — McDonald displayed another facet of his game earlier this week.
With long snapper Kam Canaday exiting practice early because of a groin injury, McDonald was pressed into duty during a field-goal session. He put 15 of his 16 snaps for Chris Boswell and Matthew Wright on the spot.
“He’s a quality snapper,” special teams coach Danny Smith said. “He’ll get us out of a game in that situation. You have to have (a backup).”
McDonald has never snapped in an NFL game, his last experience coming in 2012 when he was a senior at Rice. The Owls kicker was none other than Boswell, who was a redshirt junior. McDonald also snapped on punts when he was at Rice.
“I was really nervous,” he said, “but they were good.”
The last time the Steelers used an emergency snapper in a game was 2008 when linebacker James Harrison was pressured into service after Greg Warren tore ligaments in his knee. Harrison snapped a ball over punter Mitch Berger’s head and out of the end zone for a safety in a 21-14 loss.
McDonald also was the backup long snapper with the San Francisco 49ers before his trade to the Steelers late in the 2017 preseason. He practices snapping several times a week before or after practice.
“I tell Kam that something better be seriously wrong like your leg better be broken,” McDonald said. “We usually joke about it. He’s going to snap in any horrible circumstance.”
The Steelers, of course, are paying McDonald to catch footballs rather than snap them. His 50 receptions last year ranked No. 12 among tight ends and his 610 yards, which ranked No. 11, were the most by a Steelers tight end since 2014 when Heath Miller had 761.
“It’s always good to have a veteran and leader in the group and ‘Coach’ Vance displays some big-play ability and some other things you’d like to have for the position to carry his own in the offense,” tight ends coach James Daniel said.
With Antonio Brown and his 168 targets in Oakland, it’s reasonable to expect McDonald to become a bigger part of the Steelers offense this season.
“Numbers-wise, they have to go somewhere,” McDonald said. “It depends on how (offensive coordinator) Randy (Fichtner) wants to call the game. I think some of those will probably end up landing on our plates, so we’ll make the most of those opportunities.”
McDonald said he never has felt more comfortable in the Steelers offense, which prompted someone to ask whether a big season is set up on a tee for him.
“Yeah,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know what club to grab, but I’m going to grab something and swing hard.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .