Niner Noise’s “Who Is?” series on 2017 San Francisco 49ers players takes a look at embattled tight end Vance McDonald and all the speculation surrounding him this season.
The San Francisco 49ers sent a pretty clear message they didn’t intend to keep tight end Vance McDonald as a part of their long-term plans.
This is, of course, the pre-2017 NFL Draft trade rumors — later confirmed by head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.
No trade ever happened. But given McDonald’s frustrating pro career so far, it’s no surprise the Niners would be interested in moving on.
Taken in Round 2 of the 2013 NFL Draft, it’s safe to say McDonald’s career hasn’t gotten off to a strong start. Poor hands, injuries and a lack of productive numbers have turned this particular Niners pick into a bust:
While McDonald did manage to have a career year in 2016, his numbers do nothing to suggest he’s trending in the right direction.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Niners brought in former Iowa tight end George Kittle in the NFL Draft, as well as signing free-agent TE Logan Paulsen this offseason.
These additions will pressure McDonald into turning a page in 2017.
Whether or not he will is another question.
Why He’ll Improve
It’s always possible to think McDonald’s poor career thus far has been the result of misuse or poor coaching. Remember, the Niners were going through turmoil his rookie season — the Jim Harbaugh controversy — and San Francisco’s last two head coaches were much, much worse.
Ideally, McDonald would have been used as an H-back — the same role held by former 49ers tight end Delanie Walker.
This never really happened though, but we can’t entirely rule out McDonald’s potential as a “late bloomer.”
In fact, Niner Noise’s Chris Wilson recently broke down why San Francisco wouldn’t cut McDonald this offseason, citing a number of interesting points as to why he might be a fit for Shanahan’s offense in 2017.
Wilson raises some good points. While Kittle and UDFA rookie Cole Hikutini both have promise, neither may be totally ready to assume a No. 1 TE role this season.
Why He’ll Regress
Despite any perceived increase in stats, McDonald’s hands remain a primary concern.
I remember reading Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller’s scouting notebook a while back, and his top must-have trait for receivers was the ability to catch the ball.
This might not be as important for all tight ends, as some can double as good blockers only, but you get the point — catching the ball is important.
And McDonald’s drop rate isn’t good, according to Pro Football Focus’ David Neumann:
Entering his fifth year, it’s hard to see McDonald suddenly addressing this issue in a positive way. This is likely what the Niners will get out of him, if he’s able to make the roster.
What to Expect in 2017
For some reason just before his firing last year, former general manager Trent Baalke handed McDonald an extension lasting through the 2021 season.
This will make trading McDonald a bit more difficult, should the Niners try again between now and Week 1. And it would make things even tougher if San Francisco wanted to let go of him as it formulates the 53-man roster. The 49ers would have $7.7 million in dead money this season if they chose to do this.
San Francisco isn’t exactly in any bad cap situation, so it isn’t as if cutting McDonald is out of the question.
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But the real question is how McDonald fits into the picture. Remember, Lynch added three tight ends during the offseason.
Paulsen is likely the best fit for a starter’s role, at least in Week 1, given his familiarity with Shanahan’s system. Assuming Paulsen earns the No. 1 spot, McDonald could still wind up sticking around as the No. 2 option until Kittle, or perhaps Hikutini, are ready to take over a more prominent role.
This is probably what happens — McDonald stays on the roster this season in a final “prove it” year for San Francisco’s new regime.
But it’s a far shot to assume he’ll stay beyond this season.