Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin scouted Vance McDonald before the 2013 NFL draft and liked what he saw from the big tight end. Though San Francisco grabbed McDonald in the second round that spring, Tomlin kept tabs on McDonald, monitoring his progress from afar.
Tomlin’s view will be considerably better going forward. The Steelers acquired McDonald from the rebuilding 49ers on Tuesday, sending a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft to San Francisco for the 27-year-old McDonald and a fifth-round selection next spring.
"He’s an NFL-capable tight end, another guy to add to that mix and some competition there," Tomlin said. "We’ll quickly get him up to speed."
McDonald has struggled with drops during his career but caught 24 passes for San Francisco in 2016, setting career highs with 391 yards receiving and four touchdowns. He’ll join a group that includes Jesse James, who was anointed the starter when the Steelers released Ladarius Green in March after one injury-marred season.
James and Xavier Grimble have had uneven training camps. James missed a blocking assignment in last weekend’s loss to Indianapolis, leading to a sequence that ended with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being strip-sacked. Grimble made a leaping touchdown grab in the second half but has yet to make significant inroads on James. There’s a direct correlation to the play of James, Grimble and veteran David Johnson and the decision to bring in McDonald.
"The guys haven’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort," Tomlin said. "They’ve had some moments positively and some moments negatively and we were in the market for a guy that was NFL capable and McDonald is that. We’re not going to anoint him in any way, going to put him in uniform like the rest of them."
James, a fifth-round pick in 2015, caught 39 passes and three touchdowns last season, but McDonald is more of a downfield threat. He averaged 16.3 yards per reception last season, tops among San Francisco regulars. James learned about the trade early Tuesday and acknowledged it caught him by surprise, later adding he would do what he could to help McDonald adjust while reiterating he considers himself the starter.
"I still see myself as the guy, that’s the way the camp has gone," James said. "I feel really confident in myself that I have the job."
McDonald won’t get an opportunity to practice until after the Steelers wrap up the preseason schedule against Carolina on Thursday night. That gives him barely a week to get ready for the 2017 opener at Cleveland, meaning James and company will have to help give him a crash course in offensive co-ordinator Todd Haley’s system.
"We expect him to be able to come in and contribute to our unit," James said. "We’ll welcome him aboard and anything that takes to win a Super Bowl here is what we want to do."