49ers rookie tight end Vance McDonald may be one of the biggest surprises for San Francisco this upcoming season.
In fact, the roots of his drafting can be traced back to the beginning of the 2012 season.
Heading into 2012, the 49ers already employed one of the more dynamic tight end tandems in the NFL. The more heralded tight end was, and still is, Vernon Davis. Davis, who has already established himself as one of the best tight ends in football, shall undoubtedly add to his lofty accolades with San Francisco for years to come. Yet behind him was another tight end who, while not as highly touted and recognized, contributed in multiple ways to the increasingly dynamic 49ers offense.
Delanie Walker may not be considered one of the top passing threats that San Francisco has recently utilized. In his seven seasons with the 49ers, Walker totaled only 123 receptions for 1,465 yards and only eight touchdowns (pro-football-reference.com).
Yet Walker's importance was much more than that of a receiving threat. San Francisco's offense, which often used multiple tight end formations, relied heavily on Walker's flexibility and utility. He excelled at blocking on both ends of the line. Walker could also line up as a receiving option either in a traditional tight end formation or on the outside. He contributed as a lead-blocker in the running game as well as helping out on special teams.
In a way, Walker's contributions opened up the door for players like Davis to have successful seasons year after year. His efforts resulted him in earning the reference as being the team's "Swiss Army Knife."
Of course, the 49ers realized that Walker might depart after his 2012 contract year and would likely cash in with whichever team saw his services at a high cost-value.
Walker's free agent departure forced the 49ers' hand. They understood what his loss would mean to the franchise as well as the fact that they could not have competed with the lofty salary that Tennessee was willing to give him. Instead, San Francisco would elect to use the 2013 draft as a means to find his replacement.
There were rumors that the 49ers would try to draft a tight end like Zach Ertz out of Stanford. Ertz, who had come into his own as a dynamic receiving tight end, had played a season under 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh when he was still coaching at Stanford in 2010.
Instead, San Francisco elected to draft McDonald.
Using one of their two second-round draft picks, the 49ers grabbed McDonald with the 55th overall pick. McDonald, who was ranked by CBS Sports as the fourth-highest prospect at the position, was described as capable of lining up both as a wide receiver and at the tight end position. He blocked very well during the Senior Bowl and had plenty of upside (cbssports.com). At Rice, McDonald totaled 119 receptions for 1,504 yards and 15 touchdowns (sports-reference.com).
Many of his attributes sounded a lot like those of Walker.
Yet McDonald arrived to the 49ers' rookie camp with a lot of improvements needed to transfer his skills over to the NFL level. How would he handle the rigors of competing against bigger and faster NFL defenses and could he adjust to the more complex and dynamic offense employed by San Francisco?
It was a challenge to McDonald. During a recent interview, McDonald described the difficulties in learning San Francisco's offense. He stated:
A lot of people say football’s football, but this offense is like speaking a different language. You come in, you have to learn from step one. It’s a lot to handle but as long as you kind of slow down every day and take the new stuff that we put in and try to learn it and put it to application, it goes okay. (via csnbayarea.com)
Fortunately, McDonald has the benefit of learning under a coaching staff that has made great strides in bringing out the best in rookie talent. Playing behind Davis shall also help him learn offensive schemes much more easily. In addition, his sheer physicality is something that may make him a worthy option for San Francisco.
As reported by Mindi Bach of CSN Bay Area, McDonald stands out at 6-foot-4 and weighs 17 pounds heavier than fellow tight end Davis. She also wrote that McDonald has spent much of his spare time with rookie tackle Carter Bykowski studying blocking schemes and opposing teams' defenses.
Certainly those attributes and work ethic shall translate well onto the field once the regular season commences. Yet McDonald is finding ways to shine in other areas as well.
During the team's recent Organized Team Activities (OTAs), McDonald was one of several players who impressed coaches on the field. Not only was he able to demonstrate a better understanding of blocking schemes, but he also was one of only a few targets that was able to showcase his immense talent in hauling in tough passes.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee described why McDonald was so impressive. He wrote:
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
McDonald may have been the biggest standout among the 11-man draft class. He was a favorite for all the quarterbacks this spring, and he showed a real knack for catching passes that weren't exactly on target. McDonald has a big wingspan (34 1/2-inch arms) and a huge catching radius. He also is quite agile for his size, and on several occasions was able to twist his body and reach back for passes that were thrown behind him. Quarterbacks love to see that, and it builds confidence that he is a safe and reliable target. (sacbee.com)
His impressive abilities were noteworthy and resulted in CSN Bay Area's 49er insider Matt Maiocco referring to him as one of the two best-performing rookies during OTAs.
Of course all of this is not significant if McDonald cannot employ the same skill-set in the regular season. Yet the 49ers have plenty of reasons to believe that McDonald shall be that impressive. For starters, McDonald's proven versatility will allow San Francisco to utilize him in a variety of ways, much like they did with Walker in seasons prior. McDonald is excited about the challenge and hopes to contribute in as many ways as possible.
McDonald's size combined with his ability to haul in tough passes will certainly assist him in a number of situations. While many opposing defenses will look to shut down other offensive weapons like Davis and wide receiver Anquan Boldin, McDonald may emerge as a favored target, especially in red-zone and third down situations. In those areas, where the 49ers struggled last year, McDonald's value may truly emerge.
However, there may still be adjustments needed regarding McDonald's blocking abilities. During OTAs, where physical contact is prohibited, McDonald was not able to showcase his blocking to any significant degree. If he can master this aspect of his game, then McDonald should be able to contribute at a high level come the regular season.
Barrows describes this further by reporting:
The next big step for McDonald is blocking, which the 49ers could not practice during the spring sessions when contact is forbidden. How often McDonald sees the field, and how many passes go his way, will depend on how well he can block. (sacbee.com)
49ers fans shall remember that both Davis and Walker were tight ends out of college without much blocking credential. Yet both emerged as some of the better blocking tight ends in the league. Hopefully McDonald shall follow the same path.
If he can develop that part of his game and continue to reveal his receiving talents, there are few reasons to thwart McDonald's prospects for playing a large role on the 49ers offense. James Brady of Niners Nation predicts that McDonald could see as many as 700 snaps this season, far more than the 589 Walker was in on last year.
That number could be inflated as well due to the recent Achilles injury to wide receiver Michael Crabtree during the first week of OTAs. In addition, Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat has reported that Davis is spending a lot of time practicing with the wide receivers this spring and may spend more time lining up at the position during the regular season. Both factors could result in McDonald seeing more playing time.
Simply put, San Francisco is looking for a player to emulate the traits and aspects of the free agent-departed Walker. Yet the 49ers hope that McDonald can be better. They want him to be a solid blocking tight end. They also hope that he can emerge as a viable receiving threat, especially in critical situations. Most importantly, they want him to showcase the talent that could earn him another "Swiss Army Knife" moniker.
Thus far, McDonald has done everything he can to prove that he can meet the task at hand.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow @PeterMcShots on Twitter.