Tight end Vance McDonald had a very disappointing rookie season. When you’re drafted in the second round in the NFL you are expected to be an immediate contributor. Throw in the fact that he was meant to fill the vacancy created by the departure of former Swiss-Army knife tight end Delanie Walker and it’s safe to say that McDonald’s rookie year was a bust.
Trent Baalke is a smart man. It was clear from the beginning that he had no intention of re-signing Delanie Walker. Sure, Walker was a great tool for the 49er offense, but he was by no means a true playmaker. The answer for the all-important No. 2 tight end lay in the draft – that much Baalke knew.
There were some very attractive tight end options available in last year’s draft class, including Tyler Eifert and former Harbaugh disciple Zach Ertz. But the Niners passed on both and instead moved up to select a little-known tight end of Rice named Vance McDonald.
The majority of folks around the NFL believed this was a head-scratching selection at the time, and that was completely understandable. McDonald clearly had tools; he measured in at 6’4” 267 lbs and ran a 4.6 40-yard dash. He showed promising receiving ability while in college, running polished routes and showing solid hands.
The problem was that he struggled as an in-line blocker. Throw in the fact that he was a bit of an unknown commodity coming out of a school like Rice, and it’s completely understandable that people thought he would struggle to adjust.
None of the questions raised regarding McDonald went away during his first season in the NFL. While he showed flashes of potential as a blocker in the 49ers’ jumbo run packages, he was clearly overwhelmed by the speed of the NFL game. He rushed his routes, dropped balls, and generally looked unsure of himself. As the season wore on Kaepernick simply didn’t trust him enough to throw him the football.
Baalke and Jim Harbaugh are not idiots. They understand the uncertainty surround Vance McDonald when they drafted him. But they also understood the potential he offered their offense. McDonald is a terrific athlete for his size. He fits the mold of the new-age, passing-oriented tight end associated with today’s NFL. He just needs time to reach that ceiling.
During the preseason McDonald stood out to me. He looked far more confident in his route-running, and as a result, he saw a lot more balls thrown his way.
What often goes unnoticed in football is how much route-running impacts a receiver’s ability to catch the football. Running crisp routes will give a receiver the separation necessary to get open, and a ball thrown to a receiver in open space is a whole lot easier to catch than a contested ball.
Vance McDonald had another full offseason to improve his skills. His improvement in his blocking has been easy to see. With his size he should be an excellent blocker, and now he is finally staying low to the ground and using his leverage to drive defenders back rather than reaching with his hands.
Overall, McDonald has shown tremendous potential as a dynamic offensive option. His in-line has improved greatly and fits the bill of a Niner tight end. His confidence and his chemistry with Colin Kaepernick look exponentially better than last season. With Vernon Davis being thirty years of age and coming up on the end of his contract, McDonald may take over as the top tight end in the 49er offense.
For now though, watch out for a breakout campaign from Vance McDonald.