Each year, we like to run a series of posts called "90-in-90." The idea is that we'll take a look at every player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few ways. This roster will certainly change, and some days we'll have more than one so it's not exactly 90 players in 90 days. At this point, it's a name we're keeping around for street cred.
Eight receptions. Anytime Vance McDonald—the 49ers now second-year tight end out of Rice—gets brought up, his reception count is almost universally the first thing mentioned. Eight measly, insignificant receptions for 119 yards and zero touchdowns—a good game for some players—was all that McDonald could muster during his first NFL season. It would be easy to chalk him up as a massive disappointment and call it a day, but it's slightly more complicated than that.
After the Tennessee Titans lured Delanie Walker away with a sizable pay raise during free agency last offseason, McDonald was pegged as the replacement when the 49ers selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Walker was the Swiss Army knife of San Francisco's offense, playing a crucial role in the many different blocking schemes employed in the run game while giving the 49ers the ability to stretch the field vertically out of heavy personnel groupings. The production was never eye-popping and there were too many drops, but Walker did a lot of the dirty work and left a hole that was not so easily filled.
During his time at Rice, McDonald spent the wide majority of his time in the slot as an oversized wide receiver. He wasn't asked to be an in-line tight end very often and the extent of his blocking primarily came on screen passes in which he was able to manhandle some poor defensive back half his size. Making the transition to Walker's role in San Francisco's offense was a radical departure from what he was accustomed to doing and it was not one that was going to happen overnight.
In that context, McDonald's rookie season doesn't seem so terrible. Mistakes were definitely had and there were a couple of inopportune drops, but those things are expected from rookies in this league. The improvement in his blocking was noticeable as the season went along and it was telling that his role in the offense never wavered, even when he was struggling. McDonald was on the field for 48.4 percent of the 49ers' offensive snaps and his game-by-game snap counts were consistent throughout the season.
Many might read the above as a series of excuses for a poor rookie season from McDonald, but the reality is a player's fit within a particular scheme is one of the most important elements in the amount of success that player is going to experience. Many rookies struggle to adapt early on, but that doesn't mean they're a lost cause. It will take more than a season to truly decide McDonald's fate.
Why he might improve:
Sophomore slump mythology aside, the biggest jump a player makes often comes between his first and second seasons in the league. We've heard Jim Harbaugh mention this on numerous occasions. Things slow down a bit and players become more comfortable within their particular scheme, spending less time thinking about what they need to do and more time actually doing it.
Vernon Davis's absence from the team throughout the offseason due to super important business has given McDonald the opportunity to get some increased reps, which can only help his development. His timing and rapport with Colin Kaepernick should be improved with the added work and second offseason together.
With a full season of Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin on the field at the same time and the addition of Stevie Johnson, don't expect to see big numbers from McDonald in the box score. Regardless, it doesn't take much to improve upon a seasonal line of 8-119-0. His impact can still be greater than it was a season ago with continued improvement in his blocking in the run game and by making the most of his opportunities when the ball does come his way.
Why he might regress:
Maybe, despite the positive, fluffy training camp talk, McDonald simply fails to get a grasp on the 49ers' offense in year two and is unable to make the necessary transition discussed above. Maybe the added weapons at wide receiver leads to an increase in the number of three wide receiver sets and McDonald is on the field for fewer snaps, impeding his development.
From a pure production standpoint, only a complete lack of opportunity could lead to his numbers being any lower. Barring injury, it's difficult to envision a scenario that works out worse for McDonald than 2013 did.
Odds of making the roster:
As a second-round draft pick in only his second season, McDonald's roster spot is about as secure as they come for a non-core component. Only a catastrophic collapse during the preseason would lead to McDonald searching for work at the beginning of September.