Varsity Blues: The Dynasty Fantasy Football Fallout from the Vance McDonald Trade

Ken Kelly

The Pittsburgh Steelers were clearly not happy with the production and potential of their tight end group so they acquired Vance McDonald and a fifth-round pick from the 49ers in exchange for a fourth-round pick this week. Coach Mike Tomlin even went as far as to say their current tight ends simply weren’t “varsity enough” to move forward with. Ouch.

The move has been flying under the radar but it really does have some dynasty impact. While the tight end position is largely made up of the “elite” and “everyone else,” that may not last forever. In addition, this move gives some major opportunities to two players and really puts a pin the dynasty balloon of another.

Let’s run down the players most affected by the trade.

Vance McDonald, TE PIT

McDonald was given a five-year contract extension by previous management and it was clear newly appointed GM John Lynch wanted to move him, even admitting he had tried during the draft to do just that but failed in his efforts. This move (and the low compensation they received) is an indication the 49ers just didn’t see McDonald thriving in their offense and also showed their possible faith in a very important newcomer (more on him later).

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Over his four year career, McDonald has posted a modest 64 catches for 866 yards and seven touchdowns – hardly something to write home about. The challenge with McDonald has always been his drop rate as he’s actually the worst tight end in the league in terms of drops since he came into the league in 2013. However, he can block and checks the boxes well as an athlete. In short, he has untapped potential and needs work in one very specific area to thrive. If he can catch the football, he has the ability to be a legitimate threat – it’s really that simple.

In Pittsburgh, McDonald will slide right in and play significantly right from the start. The Steelers are clearly not pleased with the development of their assumed “JV tight ends” in the form of Jesse James, Xavier Grimble and David Johnson. Remember, this is a team that can really utilize the position when they have someone capable. Heath Miller averaged 54 catches per season over his 11-year career and also averaged right around 70 targets during that span, most of which was spent as Ben Roethlisberger’s security blanket and red zone threat. While McDonald may not be Miller, he’s worth a look as a player who could bring TE2 value this season and even surprise with some big games. Again, that’s IF he can catch the ball.

Jesse James, TE PIT

After the Ladarius Green experiment failed, most thought James would take a big step forward and become a legitimate weapon in both fantasy and reality. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t happened for him thus far. James can certainly play alongside McDonald but the Steelers just don’t see him as a full-time player at the position at this point. His dynasty value and ADP will take a serious hit based on this news. In short, I’d expect to see his name on a lot of dynasty waiver wires this week.

George Kittle, TE SF

If there’s a player to be excited about based on this move, I believe it’s Kittle. The fifth round pick has done nothing but impress the coaching staff since he arrived this Summer. In fact, he caught our eye very early in the process and was named our Summer Sleeper for San Francisco about a month ago when we really dug in to who he was. We hope you read it and picked him up! Even though his college production at Iowa leaves a lot to be desired (48 career catches for 737 yards and ten touchdowns), he played in an offense that was not in any way predicated on a high octane, pass-first mentality. He has the athletic ability to play the important “move” tight end position in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and that’s produced some great numbers for players in the past.

Kittle likely jumps to the top of the San Francisco depth chart ahead of players like Garrett Celek and Logan Paulsen with the coaching staff seemingly behind him as well. While not nearly the high-end prospect when you compare him to other great tight ends in this class like OJ Howard, David Njoku, Evan Engram and others, he’s a player you can get late in a rookie draft if you miss out on those big names. His long-term potential may not match the ceiling of those players but his short-term production looks very promising. His rookie ADP will take a jump now and I can see him being taken in the third or fourth rounds of rookie drafts at this point, especially by owners who pass on the big names for a position player and take a chance at lightning in a bottle with Kittle. While tight ends can be looked at as “a dime a dozen,” getting a really productive one for cheap is never a bad idea. Kittle has a chance to be just that and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him flourish in an offense that looks to be passing a lot moving forward. One or more of the elite tight end prospects in this class could bust and Kittle could provide real rookie draft value at a low risk – perfect for a dynasty owner.

In summary, respond accordingly with the expectation the numbers below will change dramatically over the next month as McDonald’s ADP should rise slightly, James’ should dive greatly and Kittle’s should rise sharply.



ken kelly