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49ers breakout candidates for 2014: Vance McDonald

We take a look at a potential breakout candidate for the 2014-15 season: tight end Vance McDonald.

Jonathan Daniel

We're going to take a look at 10 -- count 'em, 10 -- players who could be primed for a breakout season in 2014-15. Keep in mind that we won't be including rookies, since we're all very aware that every single player drafted this year will be an immediate success and sure-fire Pro Bowler, to the extent that there's no point in even discussing it (looking at you, Bruce Ellington). I'll probably be wrong on most of these, but when one of them actually works out I'll use this post as ever-lasting proof that a busted clock is right twice per day.

Every time I post about tight end Vance McDonald and I'm critical about his rookie season, I always feel bad about it ... after reading the comments section. It's not that people here defend him and tell me I'm wrong ... it's usually the opposite. There's quite a few of you who have had enough of him, after just one season.

While I think his rookie season was altogether poor -- poorer than many will admit -- I'm not ready to give up. McDonald has a strong skillset that lends itself well to the kind of play that's expected out of a modern tight end. He can block, and he can mow down defenders when he picks up speed, whether he's laying out a pancake block or advancing the football himself.

McDonald finished his rookie campaign with just eight receptions on 19 targets for 119 yards. He also graded out negatively as a blocker in both pass protection and in the running game by just about everyone. There were at least three drops, with at least two of those being particularly egregious.

But was there anything positive to take from it?

I think so. For one, McDonald made serious strides as a blocker as the season advanced. He was poor for the first 10 games or so, but the last few weeks, he could be seen laying out some particularly punishing blocks. Specifically, he made some very good blocks out in space to setup outside runs, short passes or screens. I think that's where he'll excel the most as a blocker going forward. He doesn't have the leverage or the base to excel inline -- or at least he didn't show that in his rookie season -- but he's absolutely punishing otherwise.

There's a lot to build on with McDonald. He's not the first player to come in and stink up the place in his rookie season, and he won't be the last. He stands a chance to improve or continue to struggle ... he also wouldn't be the first to do either of those.

What Needs To Happen

McDonald is already getting plenty of extra snaps and work with tight end Vernon Davis holding out. Maybe if you asked me a month ago, I'd suggest Davis taking camp off or something along those lines would be beneficial for McDonald. That's essentially happening here, and that's important.

Every issue McDonald had last season can easily be traced to him being raw and not fully developed yet. The coaching staff and front office made it clear that they have confidence in McDonald going forward by not addressing the position in the NFL Draft or free agency. So yeah, I think McDonald is getting every chance he needs to succeed. Now it's all up to him.

Where He Fits If He's Successful

McDonald is obviously the backup to Davis, but the 49ers like to use multiple tight ends. If he can assert himself as a weapon in the passing game, then he can find his way onto the field much more often, especially if he does it to the point that it's not obvious the team is going to run the ball when he's on the field.

It would be just swell if McDonald could take over for Davis in a couple years (or sooner, depending on his contract?). Ideally, his fit is a backup who finds his way onto the field for 40-60 percent of offense snaps, with at least half of those snaps being as a receiver. That's his fit.

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