Vance McDonald must step up big for the 49ers in 2014. But will he?
Team brass desired a well-built tight end who was proficient as both an in-line blocker and receiver in a variety of formations. San Francisco’s run-heavy and play-action-oriented West Coast offense necessitates reliable blocking, route running and overall versatility.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh needed a jack-of-all-trades-type asset after the ever-valuable Delanie Walker signed with the Tennessee Titans in free agency.
Walker, after all, was the second-highest-rated run-blocker who also managed a top-four 16.4 yards per reception among 62 graded tight ends, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
More so, all-world first-stringer Vernon Davis found himself relegated to non-playmaking duties all too often in 2012.
Case in point: He registered more snaps as a blocker (496) than he did in passing situations (446), per PFF.
These guys need the ball in their hands—especially on offensively challenged teams.
Ergo, the 49ers traded up six slots for McDonald in the second round, and Davis subsequently matched career-highs with 13 scores and 16.3 yards per catch.
Such glorious production on the gridiron necessarily begs two corresponding questions.
How did McDonald handle his blocking assignments with Davis off compiling those tremendous statistics? And how did the rookie perform as a secondary pass-catcher himself?
McDonald graded out as the No. 48 tight end in 2013 (out of 64) by the folks at PFF.
That included a negative-1.9 in run blocking, a score that actually ranked in the top 25. He received a better, but essentially even grade as a pass-blocker (negative-0.1) with just two quarterback pressures allowed.
There were six contests last season (playoffs included) in which McDonald earned a score of negative-1.0 or higher as a blocker in the run game.
These included matchups with the Green Bay Packers (Week 1), Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints, St. Louis Rams, Carolina Panthers (divisional round) and Seattle Seahawks (conference championship).
San Francisco as a team totaled 169 carries for 570 yards (3.4-yard average) and eight scores with McDonald underperforming in this designated role (we omitted any Colin Kaepernick scrambles).
On the flip side, there were four games when McDonald tallied a positive-1.0 or better. These materialized against the Panthers (Week 10), Seahawks (Week 14), Atlanta Falcons and Packers (Wild Card Round).
The 49ers amassed 103 rushes for 472 yards (4.6-yard average) and three touchdowns when their blocking tight end better fulfilled his responsibilities in front of Frank Gore and Co.
One can readily discern that this No. 3 rushing offense was a much stronger unit when McDonald performed up to snuff. Unlike the would-be 27th-ranked average of 3.4 yards, the 4.6 total was actually an improvement over the 49ers’ overall clip last year (4.4 yards).
Moving to the receiving end of the spectrum, McDonald did not exactly shine from start to finish.
Kaepernick targeted him only 19 times in the regular season and just once over three playoff games.
The first-year player recorded a meager nine catches for 132 yards and a 14.7-yard average all told. Zero touchdowns and three drops unfortunately outshined his three receptions for 20-plus yards.
Rookie campaign or not, McDonald’s pro-level numbers simply didn’t match up with his 37-catch, 462-yard and five-touchdown average over his final three collegiate seasons.
Yes, the 49ers coaching staff employed McDonald primarily on blocking downs. But when he did garner an opportunity, he dropped the ball—literally (see: Week 10 versus Carolina).
His predraft weaknesses—as noted by the scouts at NFL.com—were often on display:
Lacks strength on first contact. Majority of blocking took place in space, no in-line, which could show in NFL. At least one drop or bobble per game. ... Most occur when he has to adjust or move off his stationary spot. Other times when the ball gets there quickly, unexpected targets. Would like to see him high point more frequently.
A 49ers receiver high-pointing jump balls in the end zone was indeed a unrealized phenomenon in 2013.
That said, the 6’4”, 267-pounder with the freakishly long arms and Ivy League brainpower clearly possesses an NFL-ready makeup—both physically and mentally.
McDonald dominated at last year’s combine. Among the 19 participating tight ends, he posted the best scores in the bench press, broad jump, three-cone drill and 60-yard shuttle, per NFL.com.
He also had the second-longest arms (34.37”) and seventh-largest hands (10.12”), per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, not to mention running an eye-opening 4.69-second 40-yard dash in spite of his massive frame.
Being a graduate of Rice University certainly affords him a level of elevated intelligence. The same applies to the realm of football IQ as well, seeing as a former Texas Longhorn linebacker guided his upbringing.
Anyone who consistently watched McDonald as a 49er no doubt witnessed flashes of future potential.
It really was apparent to the unobstructed eye.
But returning to the original query, is McDonald the right complement to Davis? Will he prove a more prudent long-term investment to the superior pass-catching tight ends Zach Ertz, Gavin Escobar and Jordan Reed?
Reed, meanwhile, came out of the third-round woodwork. He racked up 499 yards and three touchdowns in just nine games for the Washington Redskins.
The folks at PFF awarded him the No. 5 ranking—including top-eight as a blocker.
Only the Dallas Cowboys’ Escobar was a noticeably inferior prospect. Two of his nine total catches went for scores, but the 6’6” former San Diego State Aztec remains a complete liability in blocking situations.
It’s worth noting that all three players were available when San Francisco was on the clock in the 2013 draft. Ertz and Reed, for their part, enjoyed more productive campaigns than McDonald last season.
In which area must Vance McDonald succeed the most at in 2014?
Yet, it was only his rookie year.
Will McDonald indeed realize his immense potential in 2014 after a full offseason with the 49ers? Will he develop into the next Delanie Walker—or better?
Gil Brandt, a current NFL.com analyst and 29-year personnel executive for the Cowboys from 1960-1988, certainly thinks so.
“I love Vance McDonald,” Brandt said to the Chronicle’s Eric Branch. “This is an excellent athlete. He’s big, and he’s fast and I thought he was the second-best tight end out there.”
Most importantly, Brandt added: “He’ll be able to do all the things Walker did for them.”
Let’s hope the athlete that Brandt believes in—and the player whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. says is an eventual starter (subscription required), whom CBS Sports’ Dane Brugler calls an “experienced route-runner” and whom yours truly counts as the real deal—develops into the complete blocking and pass-catching package.
But what fans can merely hope for, San Francisco’s personnel evaluators likely already know.
Unless some prospect suddenly emerges from this year’s ongoing combine, McDonald will hit the field in 2014 as the ever-vital No. 2 tight end for the Red and Gold.
Here’s to run-blocking demolition and 267-pounders running freely down the seam.
Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16.