For veteran tight end, Vance McDonald, 2019 was a year of serious regression, as was the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense as a whole.
In addition to struggling with productivity, McDonald also found himself struggling to stay healthy; unfortunately for McDonald, injuries have served as a detriment in his progress and development his entire NFL career.
Yet even with the evident decline in numbers, McDonald still remained effective when the opportunities presented himself, which is partly why the Steelers elected him to bring him back despite speculation to the contrary. If there is a theme one can attach to McDonald this upcoming season, it would be one of availability. Simply, a healthy and productive McDonald will go a long way in helping this offense redeem themselves from their 2019 woes.
From the surface, McDonald's regression from his impressive 2018 season is apparent. In every statistical category, there is evidence of a steep decline, most notably in receiving yards and complete air yards. At the same time, one can make the conclusion that McDonald was in route to attaining similar numbers, and in some cases better.
For instance, note his increase in red zone receptions. In week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks, he accounted for two touchdown receptions in the end zone. When looking at his total touchdowns, despite the slight decrease in this category, he managed to hold a touchdown-per-touch rate of almost 8%. The area of concern from a productivity standpoint, was the decrease in yards after the catch. In 2018, McDonald was one of the best in the NFL in the category. His inability to produce in a similar fashion last season, stems from injuries and playing with reserve quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.
Based on the numbers in this category, it is safe to say, what McDonald lacked in productivity, he compensated it in efficiency. In 2018, McDonald held a catch rate of 68.5%; in 2019, he slightly improved that number to 69.1%. Considering that his catchable target rate was also higher that it was in 2018, McDonald did a good job taking advantage of catchable balls that came his way. Though there was a heavy decrease in yards per reception, he still managed to average more than a first down almost each time he caught a pass.
Considering that route running is not one of McDonald's notable strengths, the fact that he held a target separation rate of 1.75 yards last season is very impressive. To put into perspective, All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, had a target separation rate of 1.48 yards. If McDonald was producing at this rate in this category, it may indicate that he is winning consistently at the line or in the stem. Either way, it is proof that McDonald's ability to get separation is better than it is perceived to be.
Even with the addition of Pro Bowl tight end Eric Ebron, McDonald is still an essential figure in the Steelers offense. When healthy, McDonald has proven that he can be as productive and efficient as any player at his position. Though his future with the team is in limbo, he still the power to change his current status by being available and producing at the level he is capable of doing so.