PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers thought they had enough depth at tight end when they released veteran Ladarius Green in the offseason.
They thought wrong.
Jesse James started 14 regular-season games last season as well as all three playoff games while Green was slow to recover from ankle surgery and had concussion issues.
However, James has not impressed during the preseason. Xavier Grimble, David Johnson and Jake McGee had the opportunity to unseat James as the No. 1 tight end, but none have played well enough to gain the Steelers’ trust.
Thus, it is very possible Vance McDonald will be the starting tight end Sept. 10 when the Steelers open the regular season against the Browns in Cleveland. The Steelers acquired the 27-year-old from the San Francisco 49ers on Tuesday along with a 2018 fifth-round draft pick in a trade for a 2018 fourth-round pick.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would not commit to McDonald as the starter following the trade. However, the new tight end could play in Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
One thing Tomlin did make clear is the Steelers felt they needed another alternative at the position.
“The guys hadn’t been consistently varsity enough for our comfort,” Tomlin said. “It’s as black and white as that. They had some positive moments and negative moments. We’re not going to anoint (McDonald) in any way. It’s reasonable to expect the guys who are here to respond the right way to his presence. The end result is we’ll get more competitive play at the position, and that’s what we desire.”
James has caught four passes for 21 yards during the preseason, while Grimble had three catches for 26 yards and a touchdown and Johnson has two receptions.
The 49ers selected McDonald in the second round of the 2013 draft from Rice. In four seasons, he had 64 receptions for 866 yards for seven touchdowns. He started 11 games last season while limited by a shoulder injury and caught 24 passes for 391 yards and four TDs.
James had 39 receptions for 338 yards and three scores in 2016. However, his blocking has been inconsistent since being drafted in the fifth round in 2015, and a missed assignment in last Saturday night’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts caused Ben Roethlisberger to be strip-sacked by linebacker John Simon.
The Steelers brought McDonald to Pittsburgh for a visit prior to the draft four years ago. Rice coaches have also attended Steelers’ OTAs in recent years and the Owls have incorporated some of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s scheme.
“I don’t necessarily remember an evaluation grade,” Tomlin said. “I remember those I liked. I liked him. We had some insight regarding him. One of his coaches at Rice would come up in the spring and we’d exchange some football knowledge. We felt like we had some insight into him when he was coming out of school.”
According to Pro Football Focus’ grades, McDonald was 24th among 62 qualifying NFL tight ends last season with a 73.5 mark. Meanwhile, Johnson was 28th with a 65.7 grade and James ranked 39th with a 50.0 grade.
Tomlin, though, believes all new players start over with the Steelers, so he doesn’t pay much attention to what they have done in the past.
“I don’t want to have any preconceived notions,” Tomlin said. “We evaluated him in a certain way. I’m sure he’s evolved in a lot of ways. I’m always hesitant to draw conclusions about what someone is capable of being in our environment based on another environment.
“I’m excited to give him an opportunity to show his skill set and maybe learn some new ones here. We’ll put him into some work environment situations and see what he does well and hopefully his role grows.”