NFL Fantasy Football: The Steelers might not have the right “next Heath Miller”

The 49ers report they dumped a bad contract. The Steelers say they finally found the next Heath Miller. But which Heath Miller will Vance McDonald be?

Former tight end Heath Miller was a popular figure on the Pittsburgh Steelers before his retirement in 2015. Early in his career, he put together a few strong fantasy seasons with a combination of receiving yards and five-six touchdowns. 

2012 was Heath’s best fantasy season when he found the end zone eight times while rolling up over 800 yards in 15 games. His 8.6 average fantasy points is undoubtedly what fans and coaches (and fantasy owners) remember when they say Pittsburgh has to find their “next Heath Miller”. 

Apparently, they forget about the Heath Miller of the other five seasons between 2010 and 2015. Over those five seasons, Miller averaged 4.8 fantasy points per game and two touchdowns per year. He went over 600 yards twice and had as many as three touchdowns once in that span. 

The pros and cons of Vance McDonald

This is closer to the Heath Miller that the Steelers’ can expect out of their new addition, Vance McDonald. While he brings some positives, he is far from an accomplished veteran. San Francisco fired general manager Trent Baalke shortly after he signed McDonald to a $35 million contract extension this past December.

San Francisco has not had the most accurate quarterbacks during McDonald’s time there, but that does not completely explain their 54% completion rate to McDonald and his league-leading 15.8% drop rate for tight ends over those years. The second worst tight end has a 20% lower drop rate (Jared Cook- 12.7%). 

John Lynch admitted the 49ers were taking calls about McDonald back during the draft. As Pittsburgh watched a quartet of candidates for their starter’s role fail to distinguish themselves, San Francisco found their trade partner. The big contract held down the trade value as San Francisco only moves up a round in the draft. But they are happy to lose the contract and give their tight end position to Garrett Celek and one or two young competitors. 

Proponents of the deal are excited by McDonald’s big play potential. Last season, he turned upfield with a pass and outran Luke Kuechly 75-yards for a touchdown. Some are pointing to McDonald’s 16.3 yards-per-catch, second-highest after Gronkowski last season. But without the one big play, the newest Steeler finished closer to his career average of 13.7 yards. He has never brought in more than 30 receptions or 400 yards in a season.  

The speed MacDonald showed outracing Kuechly is even more impressive when you realize how large he is. At 6’4” and over 230 lbs, McDonald brings the Steelers a force in the blocking game – as if Le’Veon Bell needed more help. 

Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin is reportedly excited by the trade. He was blunt in his assertion that the Steelers’ current tight end contenders were not meeting expectations and would do well to raise their game in response to their new competition. 

On a more optimistic note, Vance McDonald brings a veteran with a great locker room presence and work ethic to Pittsburgh. The Steeler’s young crop of reserve tight ends can learn from his example. Receiving passes from Ben Roethlisberger could improve McDonald’s drop tendencies. Ben’s new tight end has the size, strength, and speed to make him an inviting target. McDonald suddenly finds himself in a completely new football world. He will be surrounded by a tight-knit, family-owned team who expect to win every week. McDonald could respond by morphing into the high-volume, high-yardage, high-scoring fantasy tight end his former GM Baalke believed he could be.  

If I had not missed lunch, maybe I would have started this article on that high note. But… 15.8% drop rate… 54% completions rate… 30 catches and less than 400 yards for season highs… it is too much to permit me to dive in on the optimism. 

McDonald’s upside makes him a solid, rational choice as your second tight end. But if he drops a couple of passes early, don’t be surprised if you get the 500 yards/two touchdowns version of “the next Heath Miller” and not the elusive Pro Bowl version. Go with a safer selection for your TE1. 

And I still like Xavier Grimble to be McDonald’s backup over Jesse James. Just saying. 

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Pat Opperman


Pat recently retired from real life to watch sports and write. Look for references to games and events from ancient times as memories of an earlier Age of Sport tend to pop into his head.