Revisiting the 49ers' Decision to Go with Vance McDonald over Delanie Walker
Did Bill Belichick make a mistake by allowing Wes Welker to leave his New England Patriots umbrella and go to the Denver Broncos? Were the Indianapolis Colts a bit impulsive and perhaps misguided by trading for Trent Richardson? Was it smart of the Baltimore Ravens to ship Anquan Boldin out?
With people harboring over personnel-related questions like these, re-evaluating the situations after the fact, it goes to show what interests NFL fans and the mentality that comes with following such a competitive league. It’s not about what you’re doing right, it’s about what you’re doing wrong.
Every move—or refusal to make a move—is magnified and dissected.
Now, over in San Francisco, there is a 49ers team that has undergone fairly substantial personnel change and has been hurting on offense. People have been looking for answers and have found solace by blaming the quarterback, the offensive scheme and a multitude of injuries.
While that is all true to a degree, it is fair to assume that a lot of little under-the-radar moves have also played a factor.
One dynamic that has probably been ignored is that many of the supporting role players that have been there over the years are either no longer in the building or not getting involved on game day. Offensively, the most notable of which is the departure of tight end Delanie Walker.
The 49ers consciously made a decision to save themselves another high-paying contract while revamping the tight end position for the future, going with Vance McDonald from Rice in the NFL draft. With this being the marquee transitional move the team engaged in, it is time to check up on its status, evaluating the decision and how it pertains to 2013 and beyond.
.@JerryRice on who's missed most from 2012: "Delanie Walker. They'd be able to throw the ball down the field much better if he was here."— 95.7 The GAME (@957thegame) November 22, 2013
*Considering there’s been a lot of variable change from 2012 to 2013, the final rankings in each category account for parity. It would be unreasonable to compare a proven veteran to a rookie learning the ropes and expect their respective games to be on the same plateau in every facet.
Having Delanie Walker and Vernon Davis together was as picturesque as any two-tight end pairing in the league.
They entered the NFL together in 2006, as first- and sixth-round draft picks. They matured together and went through the dog days together, up until the day when Jim Harbaugh came in from Stanford and installed their TE-friendly system in which they’d finally be able to flourish.
Tight ends are an integral piece to the 49ers offensive system and have been since Day 1 of the new regime. It's a requisite to have two starting-caliber players.
As the strongest, fastest duo around, Walker and Davis were a perfect mesh with this scheme and ended among the league’s top tight end tandems in their last two seasons together (1,882 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns combined from 2011-12).
But unfortunately, Walker began outplaying his contract and his depth. The San Francisco front office knew it could not overcommit its finances to a backup with all these impending contracts elsewhere, so it just was not a priority—no matter how much they liked him.
The 49ers have been filtering out talent from the old regime all over the roster, doing so over the past three offseasons.
Slowly but surely the club has been saving money and restocking this team under its new image, one which allows backups and players from the pre-Harbaugh era to walk while they draft and develop their own handpicked players. Takeo Spikes, Josh Morgan, Isaac Sopoaga and Manny Lawson are just a few to have been let go in the process, and in a lot of cases it’s worked out for the better.
As a business matter, these decisions came down to dollar signs.
When the offseason came the 49ers could not match what Walker was going to get on the open market, nor could they offer him a starring role. He signed with the Tennessee Titans so quickly, there’s almost no chance the team even had an opportunity to court him on a team-friendly deal.
Not that Walker should have taken it, since he’s in his prime, but both sides were fully aware and very much okay with a mutual separation. It was best for all parties. This is what caused the 49ers to seek out his a suitable successor in the most recent NFL draft.
As he tends to do, Jim Harbaugh viewed this as an opportunity.
For his tight end happy offense, Harbaugh was able to handpick his next offensive weapon for his new franchise quarterback. In Round 2, after five tight ends were selected, San Francisco traded up to No. 55 overall to pick a little known prospect out of Rice University.
Vance McDonald (@VMcDonald88) started 28 of 48 games for Rice. He caught 119 passes for 1,504 yards and 15 touchdowns. #Draft49— Taylor Price (@TaylorPrice49) April 27, 2013
|Vance McDonald||6'4"||267 lbs.||10 1/8"||34 3/8"||4.60||33 1/2"|
|Delanie Walker||6'0"||248 lbs.||N/A||N/A||4.49||36 1/2"|
The write-up on Delanie Walker portrayed him as a fullback with sprinter speed, while Vance McDonald was depicted as more of a goliath with an impressive wingspan.
You could argue that it comes down to preference, particularly given how versatile Walker, but in a passing league it stands to reason that the rookie would have more of an upside as he grows into his role with the team.
Size at tight end is invaluable, and some scouts might argue that the ability to make contested catches is more valuable than the ability to separate nowadays.
#49ers select Rice TE Vance McDonald with No. 55 pick. 6-4, 267. Strong blocker. Put up 31 reps of 225 pounds at combine, best among TEs.— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) April 27, 2013
Edge: Vance McDonald
Walker is a former college wide receiver but he’s built like a mini-fridge, which made him such a unique weapon at tight end for the 49ers for so many years. He was stocky enough to play the TE position but possessed the speed and quickness to get out in space and provide another option for the quarterback.
He also excelled at slipping by the defense and getting downfield.
Per @PFF, "Tight end Delanie Walker had 220 receiving yards on deep passes, which led the league." >>He'd be a starter anywhere else.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) January 2, 2013
McDonald has the grace and mobility of a battleship when it comes to running routes. Given their physical differences, McDonald's ability to create space at the line of scrimmage pales in comparison to his Walker's.
Now, this does not mean McDonald is not effective at getting open. It's like comparing Jerome Bettis to Darren Sproles. It's not better or worse, just different.
McDonald is almost half a foot taller than Walker, and the Niners knew the recent draft pick would be a big-bodied receiver that could make plays even when he was covered. As a shorter pass-catching option, Walker has to compensate by fighting to get open with his speed. Naturally, Walker's speed makes him the better route runner.
But it’s apples and oranges.
One thing McDonald is already proving is his effectiveness as a deep threat. Of his seven catches, four have gone for 10, 19, 20 and 25 yards. He’s also moved the chains five times on his seven catches (over 71 percent of the time).
Moreover, in short-yardage situations, McDonald's physical tools as a route-runner will soon begin to pay dividends because he can use his body to shield defenders from the ball.
Edge: Delanie Walker
Hands were always something that clouded Delanie Walker’s potential as a receiving tight end, despite flashing big-play ability.
Even in Walker's seventh season in 2012, his last with the 49ers, he had a catch rate that was just a hair over 50 percent (21 catches on 38 targets). That’s not very good, especially when considering Walker was not garnering a lot of attention from opposing defenses with Vernon Davis on the field.
Walker was the moveable mismatch and he couldn’t be counted on to make uncontested catches. It was always a nail biter when balls were thrown in his direction because you never knew if it would bounce off his hands and whose hands it could potentially fall into.
According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, Walker totaled nine drops last season (30 catchable), while Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Vernon Davis had 10 combined drops out of 202 catchable balls. Needless to say, Walker’s struggles in this area are quite clear.
If he qualified last year, he would’ve been tied for the worst drop rate in the NFL.
By the end of the season, Walker was far more productive as a receiver and got hot when Colin Kaepernick came into the starting lineup. It's also worth considering that Walker was already a veteran in an offense that had all its weapons, despite an unknown wild card under center. Nonetheless, it was a significantly better situation all around.
Was not as high as many around the NFL last year on Vance McDonald. Always questioned his hands, continues to be an issue in SF— John Middlekauff (@JohnMiddlekauff) November 17, 2013
McDonald has endured his share of drops this season though.
If you go back and take a second look, it's clear that if McDonald were attacking the football there would've been fewer missed opportunities.
In consecutive weeks, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly made a solid play on the ball, as did New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins. Both times, McDonald had the ball in his hands but couldn’t bring it into his body before it was pulled out by the defender.
Even before that, in Week 2 versus the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Walter Thurmond drove on the under route and made a nice play to break up the pass. McDonald sat down on his route, waited for the ball and Thurmond made the hustle play.
Technically these were drops, but these are tough plays for anyone to make.
McDonald only has seven catches with a total of 16 targets, so it is a small sample size. One cannot definitively say McDonald has bad hands, but as CBS Sports draft analyst Dane Brugler confirmed in his scouting report it was one of the more notable knocks on McDonald prior to the draft.
It just hasn’t been the case in the NFL.
When it comes to botched plays as a pro, hindsight says McDonald might benefit from using his size to box the defender out. It does not appear to be a case that would cause folks to hit the panic button just yet though.
It’s clear he’s still growing.
Overall, his production has been greatly watered down by good defensive play and uncatchable passes. McDonald will not be anywhere near nine drops this year, but he is still a rookie assimilating to the pace of the NFL.
Tragically, McDonald has not been targeted nearly enough this season because of the offense's ineptitude. The rookie is currently on pace to finish his first season with just 15 catches for 153 yards and no touchdowns (Walker had 344 and three TDs). That being said, the advantage has to go to the former Niner because he impacted games last season—but it’s not that black and white.
McDonald should surpass Walker here, if not this year than soon enough. The 49ers rookie tight end looks the part, and if he had the same intangibles working for him as Walker did last year he’d own this category. Nobody is thriving as a pass-catcher this year, so it’s hard to make a just comparison to 2012.
Is anyone else concerned by the amount of balls #Rice TE Vance McDonald drops? Dropped a number on film and had 2-3 big drops at Senior Bowl— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) March 23, 2013
Edge: Delanie Walker*
Walker was quicker to the point of contact and had better technique on a more consistent basis, but that’s to be expected from a veteran player. With the angle blocking this system demands, naturally a veteran would have a better grasp.
Walker is also much smaller with better quickness over short distances. That compact stature and ability to convert speed to power made Walker such a valuable cog in the 49ers run game. He was like a spring-loaded battering ram.
Nevertheless, McDonald has made up for it with his power and eagerness to contribute.
The big man was the strongest tight end at the 2013 combine. In fact, he and fellow teammate Vernon Davis both happen to be two of the top five strongest tight ends drafted since 1999 (Davis, 33 reps and McDonald, 31 reps).
And that force has been on display.
McDonald has really trucked some players this year executing the wham block, just as Walker did during his tenure. McDonald is executing the hop step before the snap to position himself to tee up the defensive tackle quite well. He is also doing a good job of getting to the second level and blocking downfield for Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick.
Whether or not McDonald would be able to instantly fill this role was perhaps the biggest cause for concern when allowing Walker to hit the open market. However, McDonald has done an exceptional job so far. The 49ers have been a top-five rushing team for the majority of the season and McDonald has been right in the middle of it all.
Admittedly, McDonald could improve his technique and overall consistency but that will come with time.
Okay, Delanie Walker is synonymous with versatility.
Not only was Walker the No. 2 TE, but he was also effectively weaponized as the backup fullback and a slot receiver. He also operated as a kick returner and special teams gunner, excelling at the latter. He is a real throwback player—the only thing he didn’t do for the 49ers was play quarterback or placekick.
This category is sort of a freebie for the former Niner. Though, that is not to say that Vance McDonald has not been useful.
McDonald has been a fully functioning in-line tight end and sidecar blocker, executing all the complicated pre-snap motions and shifts in this offense. The rookie tight end has also lined up at the X, Y and Z receiver positions, as well as the H-back, running all types of routes.
There really haven’t been any limitations for McDonald on offense.
Unfortunately he does not play any special teams, but the 49ers knew this going in and were okay with it because of the upside he brings to the offense. His development as a pass-catcher and blocker is too important to run him out on special teams, where his physique would not be of any particular advantage.
Considering how handicapped the offense has been this year, it does not seem like we’ve seen the real Vance McDonald yet. Any assessment of McDonald made over the first 10 games of his career would be slightly premature and should be taken with a grain of salt.
However, just based on the eye test, supporters of the franchise have to be excited by what they’ve seen.
When McDonald has touched the ball, he’s made some nice plays. Between the speed, size and athleticism, there are shades of Kyle Rudolph and Rob Gronkowski in his game. He is a big, broad target that could evolve into the rebounding type.
And he’s only going to get better, especially under the supervision of Vernon Davis.
He’ll get more comfortable in his skin, his relationship with the quarterback will come together and he will improve as a pass catcher, whereas Walker, an eight-year pro, is what he is.
Also, just because Vance McDonald isn’t posting near the same kind of numbers as some of his peers this season, that is not indicative of what’s to come. Statistically, first-round pick Jermaine Gresham had a better rookie year than third-round pick Jimmy Graham when the two were drafted in 2010.
So, you never know how the finish product will look.
If the 49ers manage to get hot down the stretch, look for McDonald to be more involved as a receiver. If the 49ers continue to play middling football, he still might be a top candidate to be the team’s breakout player in 2014.
Harbaugh has seen improvement in @Kaepernick7's throwing anticipation, pointed out deep ball to Vance McDonald. "That one got me fired up."— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) July 28, 2013
Edge: Vance McDonald