clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trading for Vance McDonald to solve the Steelers TE issue is textbook micromanagement

The Steelers picked up a tight end they thought they needed, but ignored some glaring issues in the secondary.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers-Minicamp Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offseason, much like the latest season of Game of Thrones, has been defined by a series of ill-advised management decisions. Take Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen’s trek to King’s Landing in the Season 7 finale, for instance. Presumably aware of his half-brother (spoiler: not really) Robb Stark’s demise at the hands of a mistaken ally years earlier, Jon still opted to meet Queen Cersei et al. on her home turf to exhibit the fruits of a similarly-doomed excursion that happened only weeks earlier. The purpose of this summit and, up to this point, every action Jon has taken since assuming his role as King of the North—was to forge alliances and craft a game plan for defeating the Night King and his undead army (and, depressingly, Daenerys’ dragon-son, Viserion).

The Steelers, like Jon Snow, are seeking to destroy their own seemingly invulnerable adversary, albeit with substantially less incest (we hope):

Tom Brady summarily dissected Pittsburgh’s secondary twice last season; once in the regular season, and again in the AFC Championship game, and has not posted a sub-100 quarterback rating against the Steelers since 2005. That's right—2005. To combat Brady and his Patriots, the Steelers addressed their needs in the secondary by signing a journeyman and drafting a pair of cornerbacks in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft. And that was pretty much it.

The Steelers did, however, pull off a pretty big trade (by NFL standards, anyway) when they acquired former 49ers tight end and semi-professional Kurt Russell lookalike Vance McDonald and a fifth-round draft pick for their fourth-round draft pick. This was mutually beneficial in the sense that the Steelers gained a decent all-around tight end and the 49ers were able to dump salary (the picks are inconsequential, unless Pittsburgh drastically underachieves, or the Niners somehow overachieve).

Recouping a draft pick certainly makes this trade a little more palatable, but I question the timing, especially since both T.J. Ward and Joe Haden are reportedly available.

Ward, perhaps, is a bit less practical, as the Steelers currently have Sean Davis and Mike Mitchell slated to assume the starting safety positions this season. Mitchell, however, is still dealing with a hamstring injury (though it is worth noting that he “expects” to be ready by Week 1). Regardless of whether or not Mitchell plays, it's important for the secondary to be as solid as possible. While there was an obvious need to help bolster Pittsburgh’s tight end depth chart, the Steelers have a demonstrated penchant for acquiring veteran players weeks before the regular season, only to let them collect dust on the sidelines. Playing tight end, schematically speaking, is easier than playing cornerback, so there is a chance that McDonald is not doomed to the same fate that caused Justin Gilbert and Brandon Boykin to play only one season in Pittsburgh (and it's worth mentioning that McDonald has a 2017 out built into his current contract).

Even if McDonald does surpass his usual baseline (injuries notwithstanding, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 or so catches for 400 or so yards and four or so touchdowns), he isn't the piece that is going to put Pittsburgh ahead of New England in the AFC—unless, of course, he also plays defense. Mike Tomlin is concerned about Pittsburgh’s “junior varsity” tight ends, but Jesse James, the incumbent, is more than serviceable, while David Johnson has been a consistent, versatile presence as an H-back for a number of years. If the preseason performances by the tight ends have been overly discouraging to Tomlin, he’s either micromanaging the roster or simply ignoring the issues in the secondary.

With that said, it isn’t fair to retrospectively criticize decisions that “should’ve” been made earlier. To the Steelers’ credit, they did try to sign Dre Kirkpatrick in free agency and hosted a bunch of cornerbacks during the pre-draft process. And McDonald, a dynamic but somewhat inconsistent position player, was available for the right price two weeks before the beginning of the season. Such a fortuitous happenstance is rare in the NFL. Nonetheless, one can’t help but feel that the Steelers could have done more (and, if Ward and Haden are indeed available, should do more) to improve the secondary. Winter is coming.