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Steelers commit highway robbery in trade for Vance McDonald

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Trades in the NFL aren’t all that common anymore, especially when starters are involved. Even less so for the Pittsburgh Steelers. But they might have just pulled off a brilliant pilferage by trading for tight end Vance McDonald.

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

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Frank and Jesse James (the other Jesse James). Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. All terrible people, to be sure, and each one an infamous criminal.

So, what could these pairs of human cruft possibly have in common with Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and General Manager Kevin Colbert?

Each duo committed brazen theft in broad daylight.

Amusingly enough, each of them was after west-coast gold. For Cassidy, the Kid, the James Brothers, Parker and Barrow, it came in the form of robbing banks and trains. For Tomlin and Colbert, it was the San Francisco 49ers, stealing away starting tight end Vance McDonald.

Along with McDonald, the trade included the teams swapping 2018 draft picks, with the Steelers passing along a fourth-rounder and the 49ers reciprocating with a fifth-round selection.

If this season plays out as expected for both teams, the pick the Steelers lost could end up being as little as five positions behind the pick they acquired.

If Pittsburgh wins the Super Bowl and San Francisco finishes with the worst record in the NFL — they finished 2016 at 31st overall with only two victories, one more than the Cleveland Browns — Pittsburgh would end up with the 139th overall draft pick in the fifth round, while the 49ers would pick in the fourth round at 134. Realistically, that gap is likely to be a bit larger, but it’s still a worthwhile trade, even if Vance only manages to push the highly inconsistent Xavier Grimble off of the roster.

But Vance brings much more than that to the table. Despite relatively pedestrian career numbers, it’s important to note McDonald played the first two of his four seasons behind deeply entrenched starter Vernon Davis. It wasn’t until 2015 that McDonald became a regular starter, and that season he had to contend with the dysfunctional quarterback situation in San Francisco that saw Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick in an epic battle to see who could rise closest to the level of mediocrity by season’s end.

Despite a thick build, at 6’-4” and 267 pounds, McDonald has surprising open-field speed and agility. Because of very good hands, he often plays from the slot, and he fights hard for catches.

Basically, he’s everything we all hoped Grimble would be, while also being at least a marginally better blocker.

It’s clear the Steelers’ brass is aware that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s window is closing quickly. At this point, they are piling on any weapon they can get their hands on, aiming to win now. Two of their first four draft picks were spent on offensive skill-position players — receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and runner James Conner — who have the tools to contribute as rookies. They’ve at least been kicking the tires on former first-round draft pick and wide receiver Justin Hunter. They invested in a new contract for left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. And they added several tight ends to the pre-season roster to try to improve the offense’s only truly weak position group.

When that last experience didn’t pan out, they pulled out the stops and made the rare trade not induced by an injury. It may go down as one of the shrewdest moves this front office has made in a long time. Clearly, they paid attention this past winter and spring as the city’s hockey team, the Penguins, fleeced trade partners left and right, on their way to their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

Forget thieves in the night; the Steelers just robbed the 49ers blind in the town square at high noon, while the sheriff stood by, and even tipped his hat to Colbert and Tomlin as they rode away.