When the 49ers let tight end Delanie Walker leave for Tennessee (and by leave I mean watch him sign a RIDICULOUS four-year $17.5 million deal), it created one more need for the 49ers to fill via the draft. Finding a viable replacement in the draft made perfect sense as there was certainly no shortage of draft-eligible talent at tight end, specifically, those capable of playing the versatile "joker" position.
Toward the end of the second round, the 49ers traded up six spots to grab tight end Vance McDonald from Rice University with the 55th overall selection. Check out my prospect profile on McDonald for an in-depth look at strengths and weaknesses.
There have been questions as to why the 49ers seemingly reached for McDonald when he possibly could have been available in round three. My thought is that GM Trent Baalke was worried the Cowboys, who took Gavin Escobar eight picks earlier, may have triggered a run on tight ends.
McDonald became the fourth tight end off the board (third in the second round), and two more were selected in the third. While the 49ers may have been able to gamble and trade up in the third to grab McDonald, they saw an opportunity to get the guy they wanted while only giving up a fifth round pick.
Niners Nation first mentioned McDonald as a prospect to watch on December 29th, 2012 during Rice's appearance in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. Back then, I thought Rice would be a mid-to-late round pick.
In January, McDonald competed in the annual Senior Bowl and immediately made a name for himself. McDonald made some nifty catches during practice sessions and did a really nice job running routes up the seams. He did have some drops and his inexperience with in-line blocking was apparent, but the upside was clear.
After watching McDonald on film it's really easy to see what Baalke and Jim Harbaugh liked about him.
- Versatility: While McDonald primarily lined up in the slot at Rice, he's also lined up in-line, outside (WR), and in the back field (H-back). McDonald even got a few carries out of the pistol formation (Career: 7 carries, 52 yards).
- Size, Strength, Speed: McDonald (6'4", 267 lbs) followed up his impressive Senior Bowl week with a fantastic performance at the combine in February. He was a top performer among tight ends in just about every workout including the bench press (31 reps - first), broad jump (9'11" - tied for second best), vertical jump (33.5" - sixth best), and forty-yard dash (4.69 - fifth best). McDonald is an explosive athlete in a tight end's body.
- Physical presence: Looking at film you can see a willingness to compete and be physical on every down. Most of his blocking assignments were out of the slot against smaller defensive backs ... and he dominated them on just about every play. McDonald was also used a lot in the screen game, catching bubble screens on both sides of the field. He fights for extra yards and is a physical north/south runner.
There are a few areas McDonald will need to address early in his career:
- Hands: McDonald's hands don't appear to be the greatest on film. He does have some drops but even more noticeable are the number of bobbles. This could be a result of trying to do too much at one time. One thing is certain: With Colin Kaepernick throwing fastballs his way there could be a bit of a learning curve.
- In-line blocking: Since McDonald didn't line up a ton as a true tight end on the line of scrimmage, he doesn't have great experience blocking in-line. As noted above, there is a willingness to improve on tape and, with time, McDonald figures to improve greatly. After all, neither Vernon Davis nor the now-departed Delanie Walker were great blockers when they arrived.
The 49ers now have four tight ends on the roster with three figuring to vie for playing time behind Davis. McDonald joins second year player Garrett Celek and recently signed veteran Cameron Morrah. McDonald, being a second round pick, figures to at least make the roster, leaving Celek and Morrah to battle it out for the third tight end spot. (I do not figure the 49ers will keep four tight ends on the active roster but I guess you never know.)
Celek has made big strides and has earned praise from position-mate Vernon Davis. I'd be surprised if Morrah was able to come in and beat him out, but the competition certainly cannot hurt.
I can envision packages where all three tight ends are on the field at one time, particularly given McDonald's versatility. McDonald's immediate impact could be felt as an added wrinkle out of the pistol formation, down the seams occupying strong side safeties and/or linebackers, or creating mismatches out of the slot on third downs. Of the 36 catches McDonald had in 2012, 28 went for first downs.
One thing, I think, seems certain ... Harbaugh has a new toy to experiment with on offense, and experiment he will.