Steelers' Vance McDonald, Jesse James set goal to be NFL's best TE tandem

PITTSBURGH -- New Steeler Vance McDonald didn't need long before launching big-picture goals for Pittsburgh's tight end position.

Apparently starter Jesse James is on board.

"We’ve talked about being the best two-tight-end tandem in the NFL," McDonald said. "Not many teams use the tight ends like we do here."

McDonald knows he needs to do more before there's a chance to reach that goal. McDonald, acquired from San Francisco in a trade, did not record a catch in Week 1 and missed last week with a minor back injury, which he says has improved.

But the Steelers didn't take on a lesser draft pick (San Francisco's future fifth-rounder in exchange for Pittsburgh's fourth) and McDonald's three-year, $19.65 million contract for him to sit back and watch. McDonald's arrival has impacted the locker room. James took exception with coach Mike Tomlin calling the tight end position "not consistently varsity enough" upon the McDonald trade, and he's responded with 10 catches for 68 yards and two touchdowns through two weeks.

With James nursing an ankle injury and McDonald healing, Sunday's game in Chicago might showcase the two sharing more reps, with backup Xavier Grimble also in the mix.

How does McDonald plan to help realize his two-TE goal?

"Starting off by winning the Super Bowl," McDonald said. "Continue building each week and bringing my experience from five years [in San Francisco] and kind of learning from [James], what he does so far."

McDonald said catches only tell part of the story for Steelers tight ends, who are asked to identify protections and be stout run-blockers.

McDonald averaged 16.3 yards per catch last season, something Ben Roethlisberger should be able to utilize. McDonald -- who played with quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert and Brian Hoyer in San Francisco -- said, "it's crazy how much it changes the game" with a top-shelf quarterback such as Roethlisberger.

"Not necessarily the control he has and the game and offensive playcalling, but just kind of how he’s done things so many times, and knows how he wants things run," McDonald said. "Being able to get those reps with him, detailing a route, a release. It's pretty cool."

James, too, is eager to see how the tight end position evolves in Pittsburgh.

"I know that we'll be productive as a group," James said.