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!

10 comments

  • Agree completely on Tomlin showing a sense of urgency, but want to make several other points.

    First, McDonald is considered an outstanding blocker with very, very questionable hands. The drop numbers I recall were something like 15% two years ago (gawdawful) and 9% last year. While TE’s might naturally have higher drop numbers than wideouts (they go over the middle and get clobbered more often), they are also the target of a lot of third down, possession-type passes. Those drops thus can be equal to turnovers. That’s a huge concern. But he’s always been considered a road grader, and, as a receiver, he’s terrific after the catch – assuming he holds on to the ball.

    Second, it was James who was in on the strip sack, and here’s what Ed Bouchette wrote Monday in the P-G. “That strip-sack of Ben Roethlisberger Saturday night by Colts linebacker John Simon that ended the Steelers promising first drive was not the fault of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, as first appeared. Tight end Jesse James, lined up outside the tackle, was supposed to pick up Simon but instead mistakenly blocked down inside for a run.”

    The trade was clearly a positive, and the guy who is likely to benefit the most stands to be LeVe’on Bell. To have an outstanding blocker added to the line will help immeasurably on his runs and especially on those little swing passes. Love the trade, but also understand the downside of a receiver who apparently has Ike Taylor Hands.

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    • Homer Smash! Okay, I freely admit I should never have made any assumptions about McDonald’s blocking skills based upon what a sports radio show host who is SUPPOSED TO KNOW THESE THINGS says on the air. At least without a fact check… I did some more fact checking, and Alex Kozora of Steeler Depot did some film review and concluded he was a good run blocker but hadn’t been used much in pass protection (which I presume means he isn’t great at it, or the 49ers would have used him that way. But that’s an assumption.)

      And I misremembered which TE it was on the whiffed block, so my apologies to the X-man.

      The drop % for last year was in the article – 15.8%. Also my possible excuses for it…

      To make up for my lack of fact-checking I will share the following from the most recent “Asked and Answered” on Steelers.com. I’m paraphrasing a bit:

      Q: If you could have any active player in the league, without salary cap considerations, who would it be?

      A (this is the incomparable Bob Labriola, of course): Tom Brady. And then I would make him inactive every week. Should make beating the Patriots a bit less daunting…

      I love it! And the best part is you could dress him if Ben gets hurt…

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    • And an update on the blocking… Chris Carter of DK Pittsburgh Sports just put up a column analysing McDonald. He is willing to give McDonald a temporary pass on the inconsistency as a pass-catcher because of the awkward situation in SF QB wise. A commenter noted that, apparently, there was dissent in the ranks when he was drafted which deflected onto McDonald once Harbaugh was gone.

      As to his blocking, Carter said this:

      “The reason I call McDonald a “passive blocker” is because in his tape I see a player who looks to simply do his job in a run-blocking scheme, rather than demolish his assignments and crush opponents. Part of what made Heath Miller such a beloved tight end was how he would throw everything he had into his blocks. Whether it was a defensive end or a defensive back, Miller would get his hands to the inside of his man, keep a wide base and pump his feet to either drive his man out of the hole or emphatically claim his ground. McDonald looks more to just use his body to impede the progress of his opponent.”

      There was a lot more technical stuff which I won’t add, it being a paywall site and all, but basically he thinks Jesse James has become the better blocker, although he suffered from the same faults earlier.

      At any rate, perhaps this accounts for the differing opinions in the web-o-sphere of his blocking skills…

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  • Isn’t a receiver with ‘Ike Taylor hands’ like an accountant that isn’t very good at math?

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  • Wow, Steelers are serious about being all in this year. McDonald yesterday, Haden today.

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