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If Vance McDonald stays, tight end wouldn’t be as big a need for the Steelers this offseason

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Vance McDonald is a talented tight end. Yeah, he had a bad year in 2019, but few skill-position players really lit it up on offense with Ben Roethlisberger out for the majority of the year. If the Steelers decide to keep McDonald around for 2020, the tight end position will be a strength.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Jets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe I’m being a little too optimistic, but the sight of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing a football in a gym in California on Saturday has me thinking great things about the future.

Actually, when you’re dealing with a soon-to-be 38-year old quarterback, especially one that’s recovering from major elbow surgery, you can’t think too far into the future. Thankfully, the only future I’m really concerned with is 2020. As a huge fan of the Steelers, why would I think much beyond that, anyway?

Salary caps aren’t my problem. My only concern is seeing Pittsburgh put its best team together next season in order to get maximum value out of one of the last years out of Roethlisberger’s career.

And that’s why I say keep Vance McDonald through at least the 2020 campaign.

I realize McDonald, a 2013 second-round pick Pittsburgh acquired in a trade with the 49ers right before the start of the 2017 season, wasn’t at his best a year ago. No, his statline that included 38 catches for 273 yards and three touchdowns didn’t make one forget about the recently-retired Rob Gronkowski, but other than Diontae Johnson and James Washington, who really impressed for the Steelers on offense in 2019?

I also realize the Steelers, as always, are up against the salary cap, and McDonald, whose cap hit would be just over $7.1 million, would save the team roughly $6 million in space if he were shown the door.

But say they cut McDonald, who do they sign to replace him as the top tight end? A couple of talents on par with Nick Vannett? Do you really think that would make the Steelers offense better? I sure don’t.

This is just a guess, but Roethlisberger probably wouldn’t like that very much, especially considering how fond he is of the big and athletic tight end from Rice University who put himself on the map in 2018 with a stiff-arm of epic proportions in a victory over the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football.

That kind of freakish athleticism from the tight end position was something the Steelers had been missing from their offense for years. But two years ago, they finally seemed to find it with McDonald, who admittedly had an injury-riddled and quiet 2017 season.

Yes, staying healthy has been a concern for McDonald, especially after he missed six games in 2017. But after playing in 29 games over the past two seasons, injuries are a bug that McDonald has apparently been cured of.

I think it’s a little unfair to judge McDonald based on his 2019 performance. You, like me, watched that offense try to function under both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. So you must assume it was hard for any skill-position player to truly maximize his potential.

But McDonald seemed to be on the verge of doing just that when he caught 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns with Big Ben as his quarterback the season before.

My hunch is that McDonald, who will turn 30 in June, can have an even better season in 2020, provided Roethlisberger is close to full strength.

But, again, there are tough decisions for the Steelers to make. What’s more important to them? Creating enough room under the cap to address other areas of the team or keeping a talented, albeit kind of expensive tight end around to enhance their passing game?

For teams that have a lot of room under the cap, a tight end with McDonald’s abilities would be a bargain at $7 million. Unfortunately, the Steelers aren’t one of those teams.

Maybe the Steelers will have to part ways with McDonald, simply for financial reasons if nothing else. If so, that would certainly make the position of tight end one of great need.

But until then, I say Vance McDonald makes it a position of strength.