Last season, the 49ers used two or more tight ends on 57 percent of their offensive stats, third most in the league. While Delanie Walker offered hands of stone in the passing game, he was a dominant blocker, freeing up Vernon Davis to run pass routes down the field. It was a major part of the 49ers offense, and something that distinguished them from most other teams. By comparison, they rarely went to three-wide receiver sets, instead letting their two versatile tight ends work out of the slot.
Walker's gone now, having signed a big contract in Tennessee, and his replacement has been rookie Vance McDonald, taken in the second round of the draft out of Rice. McDonald was touted as a younger, cheaper, more talented version of Walker, with the added ability to catch passes; there was a lot of hope that he'd slide into the lineup without missing a beat.
So far, however, McDonald hasn't quite lived up to his billing. Even with so many starting receivers out, McDonald's only caught six passes. It's not a lack of opportunity, either, as he's been on the field more than half the time, running over 100 pass routes. With so much focus being on Davis and Anquan Boldin, opportunities have been there; he just hasn't made the most of them.
The 49ers, on the other hand, are happy with his development. Greg Roman was asked about the rookie's development last month and had this to say, Bill Williamson of ESPN.com:
We’ve asked a lot of him the past couple weeks, really the past three weeks; we couldn’t be more pleased with how he’s done. And really expect him to take those kinds of steps moving forward. The one thing you notice about players is everybody’s going to make mistakes as a rookie. That’s a fact. And do you repeat those mistakes? Thus far, he’s done a great job of learning from the good, the bad and the ugly and moving on a better football player. So, he’s done a really nice job and it needs to continue.
For the 49ers to really unleash their two-tight end sets, McDonald needs to keep making those strides. As it stands now, the second tight end position has taken steps back from last year's Super Bowl season.