The Pittsburgh Steelers head into 2019 hoping to return to the playoffs. To reach the top again, they will look to get meaningful contributions from players that have not thus far lived up to the hype. Regardless of trade commodities, draft picks or money spent, the players below will need to step up this season or risk their long-term future with the yellow and black.
Vance McDonald, Tight end
The Steelers have been looking for a reliable, play-making tight end since the retirement of Heath Miller. After acquiring Vance McDonald via trade from the San Francisco 49ers before the 2017 season, the team may have found an answer. To date, the thing Steelers fans most remember McDonald for is this devastating stiff-arm. This jaw-dropper was delivered against the Buccaneers last season. But since the trade, McDonald has battled injuries and split production with former teammate Jesse James.
Now that James has departed to Detroit via free agency, McDonald has the number one spot all locked up. He should also be in line for a healthy target boost as the team looks for reliability this year. Following the losses of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and James, this offense could look considerably different in 2019. As I mentioned last month, McDonald joins players such as James Washington, Jaylen Samuels, and Diontae Johnson as possible new focal points.
The biggest threat to McDonald aside from injuries, however, is Steelers fifth-round pick, Nick Gentry. He lands in a perfect situation to grab playing time as a rookie in a strong Steelers offense. He will likely compete with McDonald for targets just as James did before him. The only difference is McDonald is coming off of decent production in 2018. And more importantly, he now seems to have Big Ben’s trust. He boasts 50 catches for 610 yards and four scores as a reliable security blanket for the aging quarterback in 2018 alone. He will look to improve on those numbers or risk losing his starting job to the rookie Gentry in the team’s long term plans.
Sean Davis, Safety
Since being drafted by the Steelers in the 2016 NFL Draft, Davis has played multiple positions in the Steel City. As a rookie, he moved all over the secondary, playing both safety spots and slot cornerback. Davis nailed down the full-time starting strong safety role and played 742 snaps in his second season. In 2018, Davis returned from off-season shoulder surgery and was named the team’s starting free safety in 2018.
Despite gaining multiple opportunities and chances to contribute, Davis has mostly underwhelmed during his three seasons in Pittsburgh. He has the ideal size and athletic ability to be a big-time player in this league. Davis will be facing his biggest challenge entering year four on the hot seat for the Steelers. The odds will be in his favor in 2019 as the team failed to bring in any viable competition for Davis. This suggests that the team is hoping he will finally take the next step in his development. Davis himself mentioned that he is now “honed” in at free safety and hopes to “perfect his craft” at that spot.
2019 will mark the first time Davis will begin the season in a familiar spot in the secondary. This could help lead to his best season yet. He has only five total career interceptions and will look to improve on that going forward. With this being his second consecutive season as the team’s starting free safety, Davis should have the stability he needs to move forward successfully. The secondary should take a big step forward this season as three starters return from 2018. The team brings back Joe Haden as their top cover man, an up-and-coming sophomore Terrell Edmunds at strong safety, and Davis. With such talent around him, Davis has more of a spotlight to perform at a higher level.
Steven Nelson, Cornerback
Continuing with the theme of the secondary, the team now has competition at the number two corner spot in former Chiefs starter Steven Nelson. It may be rare for a newcomer to be on the hot seat, but that position is exactly where Nelson finds himself in Pittsburgh.
Nelson is a productive player, showing his talents off with the Chiefs during the past four seasons. In 2016, he recorded 16 total pass deflections. This was tied for 8th-most in the NFL. Nelson also intercepted four passes as a 16-game starter for the Chiefs during their playoff run last season.
However, the team also brought in some competition through the draft with Michigan State corner Justin Layne. The rookie has excellent size and will present stiff competition for the veteran Nelson during the 2019 season. Layne is a former receiver turned defensive back that is a bit of a project. However, he has 24 total collegiate starts since 2017. His upside is significant, and he will present a big challenge for the newly-acquired Nelson.
Outside of Haden, the cornerback position has been underwhelming in Pittsburgh. Therefore, the team is looking to the veteran Nelson to solidify a troublesome spot on defense. If he can do that, he may have a future in Pittsburgh for the long haul instead of being replaced quickly by the rookie Layne.