The San Francisco 49ers could be looking at some serious changes to the way they play offense going forward. At the core, this will always be a power-running team so long as Jim Harbaugh is the head coach, but with the addition of Stevie Johnson and a healthy group of receivers in general, we could be seeing a new focus on the passing game going forward.
One thing that I was keeping my eye on during the 2014 NFL Draft was whether or not the 49ers would be bringing in another tight end to compete with second-year player Vance McDonald. Now, the 49ers aren't going to transform into a spread offense overnight or anything, so getting another Vernon Davis added to the mix isn't necessarily required, but I wondered if the team would look to upgrade the position.
I wondered this because McDonald had a particularly poor rookie season, in my view. Of course, I'm not saying the 49ers absolutely needed to upgrade the position or that I don't like McDonald as a prospect, I just think the lack of taking a tight end at any point in the draft is something not entirely unlike a vote of confidence in McDonald. I realize the 49ers signed Miami (FL) tight end Asante Cleveland as an undrafted free agent, but I view him as competing for an almost exclusively blocking role.
At Rice, McDonald put up 119 receptions for 1,504 yards and 15 touchdowns in four years, with the bulk of his playing time occurring in his final two. Obviously, he came into the NFL as more of a pass-catcher than a blocker, but he didn't excel in either area as a rookie.
McDonald was an exceptionally poor run blocker for much of the season, with flashes of brilliance from time to time (I noticed some of his best blocks were out in space, much like Delanie Walker). His eight receptions for 119 yards doesn't inspire a whole lot, nor do his multiple egregious drops. He had a negative impact on the field in the passing game and in the blocking game.
It doesn't help that his struggles blocking may have led to Davis having to stay in and block more. Any time Davis stays in to block, I feel like we're wasting the potential of the offense, especially with this offensive line. I will admit, when McDonald was on his game, the 49ers did run the ball better -- a 4.6 per-carry average in games in which McDonald graded as a 1.0 or better in the run-blocking department from Pro Football Focus versus 3.4 in games in which he earned a negative mark -- but the point is that he struggled.
Going forward, McDonald is going to get plenty of opportunities to make things happen. Harbaugh has expressed his confidence in McDonald's developing abilities more than once and the team neglecting to address the tight end position outside of undrafted free agents, in my mind, is the next-best thing to a ringing endorsement. McDonald is your No. 2 tight end, folks. Let's hope that's the right decision.