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Why fans should be cautiously optimistic about Steelers’ TE Vance McDonald

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If 2018 really is a breakout season for Vance McDonald, the Steelers long search for a freakishly athletic tight end may finally be over.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

It seems the Steelers have been searching for one since about six seconds after Rob Gronkowski burst onto the scene with three touchdowns in a Sunday night loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field way back in 2010.

What has Pittsburgh been searching for, you ask?

That athletically freakish tight end with the kind of size that makes it look ludicrous to match him up with a defensive back, along with the type of speed that makes it look equally foolish to task a linebacker to do the same.

I believe the Steelers’ experiment to find their own freakish tight end began in 2011 with the signing of undrafted free-agent Weslye Saunders.

Saunders did seem to possess the prototypical size, speed and athleticism of a Gronkowski, but after being suspended for PEDs, he quickly fell out of favor in Pittsburgh and was released.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the newsworthy free-agent signing of former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green, an understudy to the legendary Antonio Gates and a youngster just itching for his own place to shine.

While Saunders’ potential was perhaps a mirage and fabricated by Pittsburgh’s desire to find its own matchup nightmare, Green did seem to come to town equipped with the real goods, as evidenced by the 37 catches for 429 yards he totaled in 2015 while seeing the most action of his career, thanks to the four-game PED suspension served by Gates at the beginning of the season.

Unfortunately, Green suffered multiple concussions in San Diego, and when he arrived in Pittsburgh, he did so as damaged goods, only playing in six of the team’s 19 games in 2016.

Green was released by the team last offseason after failing a physical, and like Saunders, he’s currently a free agent.

That brings us to last August and a trade with the 49ers that brought tight end Vance McDonald to Pittsburgh in-exchange for a fifth-round pick, a deal that was quickly overshadowed two days later by the free agent signing of decorated cornerback Joe Haden.

Like Green before him, McDonald came to town with the kind of size and speed possessed by so many athletically freakish tight ends that seemed to be popping up in every NFL city besides Pittsburgh.

If you watch his 2017 highlight video that’s 2:03 long, you’ll find a few instances in-which McDonald was tantalizingly close to breaking a play and adding at least a minute or two to his reel.

In addition to his athletic potential, McDonald arrived to town with a reputation for having bad hands — a reputation he failed to erase.

It also didn’t help that he had some injury problems in his inaugural campaign as a member of the Black-and-gold.

Yes, despite his spurts of potential and, at 6’4” and 267 pounds, his obvious size and athleticism, 2017 was pretty much a lost year for McDonald.

”Overshadowed” and “tantalizingly close” certainly described McDonald’s first season as a member of the Black-and-gold.

He just never quite seemed to fit in with the Steelers’ offensive plans, and when he did get a chance to break through, he came up just a little short.

Much like trying to find two consecutive days of sunshine and clear skies, it seems like Pittsburgh will never have a tight end who dwarfs defensive backs, outruns linebackers and has an annoying touchdown celebration dance.

But if you google “Vance McDonald breakout season,” you will find many articles predicting a big year for the big guy.

You hear nuggets from Steelers insiders such as Dale Lolley, who says it really wasn’t McDonald’s injury issues that kept him from being a bigger contributor in 2017, it was those injuries combined with his unfamiliarity with the offense, thanks to his late arrival to town.

Apparently, McDonald’s locker will be next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s this season, and that could only lead to chemistry and rapport.

You know how much of a security blanket the tight end has been for Roethlisberger throughout his career, and if McDonald really does have a breakout season in 2018, that security blanket could be of the electric variety.

Speaking of electric, McDonald does appear to have an edge to him, and a bit of a swagger.

He may even have one of those annoying touchdown celebration dances only the truly gifted tight ends seem to roll out.

From my lips to the football gods’ ears.

The Steelers have been looking for a freakishly athletic tight end for far too long.

Maybe his name is Vance McDonald.