Some Random Thoughts on the trade for TE Vance McDonald
It’s official—the 49ers traded McDonald to the Steelers for a bucket of bubble gum. Actually, they swapped picks next season, giving the Steelers their 5th-round pick in exchange for the Steelers’ fourth-rounder. Which I guess means the Steelers won’t be drafting another quarterback next year, unless they get a fourth-round comp pick, because that’s where they seem to take them lately.
So let’s take a quick look at what sort of player we can expect to see and why he’s here. I’ll take the second question first, because it can be answered by Mike Tomlin’s typically succinct and (when he wishes to be) blunt reply to reporters today—the tight ends on the roster are not “varsity players.”
“Varsity” and “JV” seem to be this year’s Tomlinisms—the distinction between what, in last year’s Tomlin-speak, would have been “above-the-line” and “below-the-line.” I find myself wondering if this represents a heightened sense of urgency on Tomlin’s part, perhaps because the Roethlisberger Window is inexorably closing. I say that because there seems to be a more personal dig in calling someone’s performance “JV” as opposed to “below the line,” which is a bit more, as Dame Edna might say, kind and caring. But maybe there’s no difference, and he’s just looking for a way to get everyone’s attention.
Frankly, from what I’ve seen in the preseason I would agree with Tomlin’s assessment, which I’m sure would be an enormous relief to him if he knew it. Jesse James dropped a lot of passes and had very few YAC when he did. Grimble looked better in his limited opportunities, but from everything I’ve read he’s an inconsistent blocker, and rumor was the strip-sack of Ben was set up by his whiffing on the block and Alejandro Villanueva being thus at a disadvantage. Whatever the case, Tomlin clearly wasn’t pleased with what he saw.
As to what sort of player we can expect to see, there is the fact that the 49ers were so willing to trade him for almost nothing. On the other hand, in their article about the trade, Pro Football Focuswas more positive than I would have expected under the circumstances:
McDonald finished last season with a very respectable 73.5 overall grade [out of a possible 100], higher than any returning Steelers tight end a year ago. His 74.3 receiving grade (22nd out of 52 tight ends) also topped any returning Steelers tight end, including incumbent starter Jesse James’ 46.9 receiving grade (44th of 52.)
From everything I read, McDonald is not known as a blocker, and, like Ladarius Green, would be viewed more as a receiving threat. (After all, we have JuJu to block…) But the Steelers are clearly looking to reverse the rather discouraging tendency last season to march smartly down the field, only to stall out at the goal line and end up kicking a field goal. Winning a post-season game without ever managing a touchdown will bring that to the coaching staff’s attention in a particularly gripping way, I’m thinking.
There is one small fly in the seemingly fragrant ointment, which we sniff as we dream about lovely passes thrown into the end zone to guys who can out-reach the crowds of defensive players—McDonald is 6’4″, which isn’t enormous but is a lot taller than the vast majority of receivers Ben has had to work with through most of his career. We see his hands reaching up—we can see the ball nestling into them—heck, we can even smell the wings we are going to whip up for the Super Bowl party—and then the ball inexplicably ends up on the ground.
Yes, the big knock against Mr. McDonald is that he drops a lot of passes. To the tune of a whopping 15.8% of them last season. (This was also from the PFF article, and their drop rate takes various considerations into account. So while it may not be perfect, you can assume that most of those drops were his fault.)
Which makes me wonder why, with such a high drop rate—one of the very highest in the NFL—they would still give him such a respectable, as they termed it, receiving grade. I don’t know, as their calculations are pretty opaque to the average user, but I’m guessing a lot of it would be his very nice YAC rate. It was, in fact, just about double that of Jesse James, who, despite his impressive size, seems to be easily discouraged.
But don’t give up on that elusive fragrance yet. There is the matter of who’s throwing to him (despite what I just said about the calculations for catch rate.) There is a difference between a pass a guy “should have caught” and a pass thrown in a way to make it easy to catch, and Ben, at least when he’s on, is really good at that.
There is also the unquantifiable “chemistry” issue. In terms of the Steelers this season, it’s going to take McDonald a while just to get up to speed with the playbook, much less develop much “chemistry” with Ben. But I’m more thinking of his “chemistry,” or lack thereof, with the quarterback[s] with which he was working in San Francisco. Because that situation has been a bit of a dog’s breakfast, it seems to me. Here’s how it was described on Niners Nation:
A year ago, Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick were returning to the roster from the 2015 team. The 49ers the signed Thad Lewis, a favorite of Chip Kelly, and drafted Jeff Driskel. Lewis tore his ACL and was replaced by Christian Ponder. The 49ers then cut Driskel, only to see him claimed by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Does this remind you of a team in our division? Author David Fucillo continues:
This year, three of the four 49ers quarterbacks were due to hit free agency, and Colin Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his renegotiated contract to become a free agent. The 49ers entered free agency with no quarterbacks, but quickly cleared that up. They signed Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley… A month and a half later, they drafted Iowa’s C.J. Beathard in the third round of the NFL Draft, and then followed by signing Nick Mullens as an undrafted free agent…
According to sources, one of the reasons the 49ers were happy to move on from McDonald, their 2013 second round draft pick, was that he was having an “uneven” camp. But it seems to me that combining the confusion at quarterback with a staff that, apparently, didn’t care much for him and were much higher on one of the other TEs could do that to a person.
Tellingly, the author of the Niners Nation piece called Brian Hoyer the “bridge to the future”, and he seemed to think, despite the drafting of Beathard, that the future likely lies in another year’s draft.
None of this says McDonald is actually worth more than one draft round’s worth of pick. But it looks as if there are definitely extenuating circumstances. I also think that a spot on the Steelers’ roster, assuming he earns it, represents a new and exciting opportunity for McDonald. Here’s hoping the shakeup in the TE room leads to some shakedowns of opposing defenses!