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Steelers Film Room: Analyzing what new acquisition Vance McDonald brings to Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Steelers traded for San Francisco 49ers TE Vance McDonald. We show exactly what the team is getting in this acquisition in the Film Room.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no way to put it lightly. The Steelers tight end play had been poor to say the least. There was lots of concern about the position heading into the season, and the tandem of Jesse James and Xavier Grimble have done nothing to quell those concerns.

The Steelers lacked athleticism and playmaking at the TE position and they desperately needed it.

Enter Vance McDonald

By contrast to Jesse James and Xavier Grimble, McDonald possesses the athletic ability to effectively run, and sell, pass routes. At the same time, though, he possesses the speed to take plays to the house.

Watch this play vs the Saints, as he takes this pivot route all the way into the end zone, showcasing his speed and change of direction in his break.

This is something the Steelers simply won’t get from Jesse James.

As much as I like James, he’s way too stiff moving in and out of his breaks, and, while he’s not a bad blocker, that doesn’t compensate for what his body of work as a receiver has shown.

If anything, Vance McDonald has about the same level of blocking skills as Jesse James. Watch him here holding his ground vs. a 280-pound defensive linemen, sealing him off from the left side, which helped lead this TD run.

Granted you’ll notice that his pad level is too high and you’d like to see him move his feet more, but this is all stuff he can improve on. For those wondering, it’s highly doubtful we’ll see McDonald become the next Heath Miller (or George Kittle, the guy who is replacing McDonald) when it comes to blocking.

Here’s another example of what he brings to the Steelers as a blocker, this time in space as the lead blocker on an end-around run. The defensive back had no chance.

This type of athleticism in space is what can help not only the Steelers’ tight end-screen game, but also blocking at the second level on screen plays.

While Vance McDonald’s numbers have been underwhelming throughout his four seasons in the league (entering his 5th), there’s no denying his upside as a receiver vs. Jesse James.

Some may point out that his hands aren’t very good. According to Sportingcharts, he had an 8.9% drop rate in 2016. While not great, that’s not exactly terrible either. But as Pro Football Focus has noted, McDonald’s career drop-rate is the worst among qualifying TEs.

The Steelers wanted a Ladarius Green type of TE that could stretch the seam and pose a big problem for linebackers. Like Green, McDonald has long been playing second fiddle at tight end for the likes of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Still, when he’s on the field, he shows that same seam-busting ability they had.

This play vs. the Panthers in 2013 (his rookie season) is an example of why I’m torn between excitement and tempering my expectations for Vance McDonald:

You see that seam-stretching ability on display here as he’s able to bust the cover-2 linebacker coverage by Luke Kuechly. Keep in mind, Kuechly gets his eyes caught a little watching the backfield and, as a result, McDonald has a clear shot to burst up the seam with a running start, not being pressed during his release off the line.

As soon as Kaepernick finished his drop and hitch, he let it rip and dropped a perfect pass right into McDonald’s bread basket, but it was dropped.

This is what I believe the Steelers are getting with McDonald. There will be moments when he makes a big play, or stretches the defense up the seam, or occasions when he makes some decent blocks, but he’s going to find ways to frustrate fans as well.

Can he find a way to become a more consistent threat in Pittsburgh? It’s possible, but it’s more likely he’ll excite about as much as he’ll frustrate us, the fans. At this point, though, Pittsburgh will take whatever they can get at the tight end position. Nevertheless, having a more athletic tight end like this will create additional problems for opposing defenses.

Not a bad move, Pittsburgh.