Steelers

Analysis: McDonald poised for Pro Bowl leap ☕

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Vance McDonald. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

It seemed an innocuous enough question a few weeks ago on my Live Qs day and it certainly was. But it was a question that put me into some deep thought.

Which Steelers player who has not made a Pro Bowl has the best chance to do so in 2019?

It's actually a difficult question for the Steelers, who have 11 players on their roster who have been named to or played in a Pro Bowl at some point in their career, including eight players last season -- though only six participated.

That's a high number, especially considering you only put 11 guys on the field at any one time. But it speaks to the talent still on the Steelers' roster, even without Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, who would have added to that number.

But taking those 11 players -- Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro on offense, Cameron Heyward, Joe Haden and T.J .Watt on defense, and kicker Chris Boswell -- out of the equation doesn't leave you with a lot of options.

Or does it?

Certainly the Steelers still have some other very talented players. Javon Hargrave, Stephon Tuitt, Steven Nelson and even rookie Devin Bush come to mind as players who could certainly be selected to the Pro Bowl in 2019.

But the pick here comes from the offensive side of the ball: Vance McDonald.

And there are a number of reasons why, not the least of which is McDonald being a very talented player. Studies also show tight ends typically peak later than many other positions in terms of their level of play, usually having their best years between the ages of 28 and 32.

"Really? I didn't know that," McDonald said last week. "I'll have to check into that."

The reason McDonald was interested to learn that bit of information was because he's right in the middle of that age range. He'll turn 29 on June 13.

Therefore, it was no accident McDonald had his best NFL season -- by far -- in 2018, catching 50 passes for 610 yards and four touchdowns, all of which were career highs.

Chances are, with Brown and No. 2 tight end Jesse James both gone, McDonald will be asked to do even more. He received 72 targets in 2018. Expect that number to push to 90 or more in 2019.

McDonald welcomes the challenge.

"I think it’s required," he said. "It’s definitely being asked and I will embrace it.”

If he catches 60 or more passes, he'll have a pretty good shot at a Pro Bowl. After all, Rob Gronkowski is retired. And the 2018 Pro Bowl tight ends in the AFC were the Chiefs' Travis Kelce, the Colts' Eric Ebron and the Raiders' Jared Cook.

Kelce is an absolute shoe-in to make the Pro Bowl again this year. With Gronkowski retired, he's the clear-cut choice as the top tight end in the AFC.

But Ebron made it in largely based on his touchdown production -- 13 in 2018 -- though he did have 66 receptions for 750 yards, as well.

Cook, meanwhile, is now playing for the Saints, having signed as a free agent.

There are some other players who will vie for a spot, including the Chargers' Hunter Henry, but McDonald is going to get plenty of opportunities.

The question for him is health. Because of his rough-and-tumble style of play, McDonald gets nicked up from time to time. In his first season in Pittsburgh, because he joined the team so late — joining the Steelers in the week before the regular season opener — the coaching staff erred on the side of caution. If McDonald didn't practice the week leading up to a game, he didn't play. The staff hadn't built up that kind of trust with him yet.

Now, it has. So much so, in fact, he'll be counted on to be a major part of the offense. He is, after all, the Steelers' most athletic and complete tight end since pre-knee injury Heath Miller.

That led to McDonald playing in 15 games in 2018, matching his career high, even though he wasn't always a full practice participant. Unless he suffers some kind of major injury in 2019, chances are he'll see at least that many games this season.

And that's why he's my pick as the best bet as a first-time Pro Bowl player for the Steelers in 2019.

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