The Steelers have several personnel decisions they will have to make ahead of the start of the league’s new year on March 18. Among the team’s personnel decisions includes tight end Vance McDonald, whose club option would count $7,127,500 against Pittsburgh’s 2020 salary cap.
Given their current salary cap situation (Pittsburgh’s current cap space is about $1.58 million, according to Over The Cap), CBS Sports NFL insider Jason La Canfora told 93.7 The Fan on Friday that he does not expect McDonald to be back in Pittsburgh in 2020 at his current cap hit. This means that, unless the Steelers can agree to a restructured deal, the tight end is expected to become a free agent.
While McDonald has been the team’s most productive tight end since coming to Pittsburgh (via a trade with San Francisco) just before the start of the 2017 season, he will be turning 30 this season and is coming off a year that saw him catch just 38 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns. In defense of McDonald, he did not have the luxury of playing with Ben Roethlisberger last season; the Steelers’ offense, as a whole, saw a significant decline in production with Big Ben out due to an elbow injury.
After injuries marred his first season in Pittsburgh, McDonald put up career numbers in 2018, catching 60 of 72 targets for 610 yards and four touchdowns. His biggest play of the year took place in Pittsburgh’s Week 3 win over Tampa Bay, as his 76-yard touchdown catch — that included a nasty stiff-arm of defensive back Chris Conte — propelled the Steelers to their first victory of the season.
The 55th overall pick in the 2013 draft, McDonald has started in 35 of his 39 games with the Steelers. Last season, he started over rookie Zach Gentry (a fifth-round pick out of Michigan) and four-year veteran Nick Vannett, who was acquired during an in-season trade with Seattle. Vannett, who made six starts in 13 games with the Steelers in 2019, is an unrestricted free agent who earlier this offseason stated that he hopes to resign with the Steelers this offseason.
Pittsburgh may elect to spend their first pick in the draft — the 50th overall pick — on the tight end position. Two possible options for the Steelers are Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins and Vanderbilt’s Jared Pinkney. Hopkins, the 48th-best player in CBS Sports’ 2020 prospect rankings, caught 61 passes for 830 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Pinkney, the 56th-ranked player on CBS’ prospect rankings, caught 114 passes and 14 touchdowns during his time with the Commodores.
While McDonald’s contract situation is surely a priority for the Steelers, Pittsburgh’s top personnel priority over the next month is outside linebacker Bud Dupree, the team’s 2015 first-round pick who is coming off of a career year that saw him record 11.5 sacks with four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. The Steelers are expected to franchise tag Dupree if the two sides cannot come to terms on a longterm contract by March 10, the deadline for NFL teams to tag players. Dupree’s franchise tag would cost the Steelers about $16.26 million for the 2020 season.
Pittsburgh is also expected to extend 2017 first-round pick T.J. Watt’s contract this offseason. Watt, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, was named All-Pro in 2019 after recording 14.5 sacks while leading the league with eight forced fumbles.