LATROBE, Pa. (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Vance McDonald noticed a positive change in the organization following last year's turbulent season.
McDonald also noticed a difference in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the chemistry surrounding the team as a whole after the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Both changes have him excited for 2019.
"I think it's just an open dialogue and communication, not necessarily with (Roethlisberger), but with all guys," McDonald said. "It's not even worth waking up and going through the day mad or angry about a situation or about guys, so you put all of that into open air and let it go. It's impossible to explain, but it feels very open, free and fun."
Two-time All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell declined to sign his $14.5 million franchise tender last year and opted to sit out his final season with the Steelers.
Wide receiver Antonio Brown, a four-time All-Pro, was benched by coach Mike Tomlin before a must-win Week 17 home game against Cincinnati. Then he spent the first two months of the offseason doing what he could to force his way out of town before he was ultimately traded to Oakland.
McDonald said he never considered Brown a distraction to the team.
"No one is perfect," McDonald said. "He's such a dynamic player, and the way he handles his business is one that's very out front and in the open. I'm not going to judge or frown upon that. I loved the guy while I played with him and I think he's the best receiver that I've ever seen."
McDonald did, however, reference team unity as a whole.
"I never wish that anyone who walks through the doors and puts on a Steeler jersey is going to say that they're more important than the man beside them, or they're more important than the team," McDonald said. "That's not the mentality that we need, and when you get too much of that, things start to crumble. I'm not saying (Brown) had that, but it's something we absolutely have to stay away from."
McDonald feels confident that Roethlisberger will have another strong season after the two-time Super Bowl winner led the NFL in passing and broke the franchise record with 34 touchdowns.
"He's the best there is," McDonald said. "I believe it when he says that he's going to be the best he's ever been this year. This is only the second camp that I've been to with him and just his whole approach and demeanor is completely different this year. I think he's ready and willing to do everything that it takes to win another championship."
McDonald played in 15 games, making 14 starts last season. He established career highs with 50 catches for 610 yards, while also tying a personal best with four touchdowns.
McDonald wants to build on that this season.
"At the end of the day, I want to do whatever it takes to win," McDonald said. "If it ends up coming my way, I'm absolutely going to accept that. If the ball finds me more this year, I'll gladly take it."
McDonald, a second-round pick in 2013, spent his first four seasons in San Francisco. The Steelers acquired the 29-year-old in a trade two weeks before the start of the 2017 regular season, and he has developed into the leader of a tight end room filled with younger talent.
McDonald looks to step into more of a leadership role on the offense this season. He also wants to help fill the void following the offseason departures of Brown and Bell.
"You never want to enter in a position where you think you arrived or hit a ceiling," McDonald said. "There's always room for improvement and training camp is a great place to dive deeper into that, not only for relationships, but also your game."