Tight end Vance McDonald could be one of the biggest salary cap casualties for the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 2020 season kicks off in March. McDonald has been a disappointment since the trade that brought him over from the San Francisco 49ers prior to the 2017 season. Jettisoning the former Rice standout for Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku just makes sense.
In three seasons with the Steelers, the seven-year pro has missed nine of a possible 48 regular season games. This is not surprising with his lengthy injury riddled history. The bothersome parts are his salary and his production. In 2017, his cap hit was reasonable at $2.6 million, but the 14 receptions were a major disappointment. The 2018 season was different with career highs in receptions and yards compared to his $2.1 million cap hit. The problem is, that season might just have been the pinnacle of his career. In 2019, McDonald regressed with 38 receptions for 273 yards and a career low 7.2 yards per reception. Terrible numbers considering his $5.8 million cap hit.
McDonald carries a cap hit of $7.1 million in 2019 while leaving a meager $1.5 million in dead cap behind. He is just too expensive for his production and injury history. This is where Njoku enters the picture.
Njoku, the 29th overall draft pick in the 2017 draft had a mundane rookie season with 32-387-4 stat line in 16 games. His 2018 season was the breakout the Cleveland Browns had been hoping for. The former Miami Hurricanes broke out for 56-639-4 stat line in 16 games with 14 starts. The 2019 season was a forgettable one. In Week 2, Njoku broke his wrist and was placed on injured reserve designated for return. Even though he started practicing on November 20th, he was not activated until December 7th. His first return to game action was frustrating for the 6-4 246 pounder where he saw just 21 snaps and nine routes run with three targets and one reception.
The next two weeks, Njoku was a healthy scratch and finished the season in Week 17 with zero targets. While the Browns have brought in a new coaching staff, the 5-41-1 line also showed a clear disconnect with franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield.
As Njoku is a first rounder, the Browns (or another team) have until May 30th to exercise their fifth year option for the 2021 season. (The salary is guaranteed for injury only.) This leaves the Browns plenty of time to mend bridges or find a trading partner such as the Steelers. His 2020 cap hit is a reasonable cap hit of $3 million.
Take into account his pedigree, relatively cheap 2020 cap hit, his potential which is amplified by his 2018 season, to go along with the Browns probably taking an early day three draft pick and you have a player who checks all the boxes for the Steelers. GM Kevin Colbert may have to perform some draft day magic to acquire a third rounder high enough that would be acceptable by new Browns GM Andrew Berry.
The Steelers are in dire straights with their cap situation. Colbert’s approach of restructuring contracts and kicking cap hits down the down has finally caught up with the team. Colbert will have to get creative to fill holes by cap casualties and solidify a position that has been in flux since the retirement of Heath Miller. Njoku could be that player. Do the new Browns regime see Njoku as a fixture for their young offense or an expendable cog? While some in Steeler Nation have pipe dreams of landing Austin Hooper, others want to bring in Tyler Eifert (Those fans clearly do not remember the Ladarius Green debacle.) I for one would like to see the Steelers pry Njoku away from their division rivals.