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Growth of Vance McDonald one of the bigger surprises for Steelers in 2018

Once considered a candidate for release, Vance McDonald could become the key offensive piece in the Steelers’ push for a divisional title this season.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded for Vance McDonald just days before the start of the 2017 season, little was known about the former second-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers beyond a reputation for drops and the inability to stay healthy. During his first year with the Steelers, it appeared those traits had followed him to Pittsburgh, but in 2018, fans are warming to a very different version of the oft-maligned tight end of last season.

Although McDonald technically suited up for 10 games in his debut year with the Steelers, he finished far fewer games than he started due to a variety of injuries — ultimately seeing only 270 snaps on offense out of the 1038 available (24.4%). The five drops he recorded marked the highest total of his professional career, matching a feat he achieved in 2015, but because of far fewer targets, this earned him his worst drop-rate percentage in five seasons.

Fast forward a year, and McDonald looks like a different player. He’s lost only one game to injury so far and he’s close to doubling his production from 2017 in the first six games of 2018. After a mere 14 receptions for 188 yards last season, McDonald has already recorded 23 catches for 321 yards and, perhaps most importantly, no drops.

His connection with Ben Roethlisberger is clearly showing signs of growth, with the quarterback enjoying a 126.3 rating when targeting his tight end and only five of his 28 passes to McDonald having fallen incomplete. With increased production comes increased playing time and he has already seen 223 snaps with less than half the year gone and at over double the rate of his previous season at 54 percent.

As he’s become more comfortable in the offense, his play on the field has flourished. As several defenders can attest this season, McDonald is playing a much more physical game this season. Punishing would-be tacklers has become something of a signature move for the tight end this year and we’ve seen notable highlights almost weekly.

As the Steelers struggle to find consistency with a third wide receiver, McDonald continues to stake his claim as the go-to option and he currently finds himself fourth on the team in yards and receptions, just two yards shy of James Conner’s total. Martavis Bryant ended the year fourth in yards and receptions in 2017 with 50 catches for 603 yards — numbers McDonald would easily surpass on his current trajectory.

Once considered by many sports pundits and fans as a candidate likely to be released, his violent playing style has won over the detractors in 2018. If he can continue to progress during the second half of the season and also remain healthy, he could be a vital piece in the push towards another divisional title.