The 49ers weren’t exactly certain what they had in Vance McDonald going into the 2013 season.
The rookie tight end from Rice was certainly big enough to play his position (6-foot-4, 267 pounds) and strong enough (he had the best bench-press performance of any tight end in his draft class). But would he have the all-around skills and blocking abilities that the Niners prized so much in departed free agent Delanie Walker, who had been the team’s versatile “Swiss Army knife”?
The early answer: No.
McDonald, who was used by Rice as a tight end, wide receiver, slot receiver and even running back on occasion, had to learn to become a professional blocker and his hands were inconsistent. But by the end of the season, McDonald had come a long way. Now, as the team begins preparations for next season, McDonald should be a much more valuable and versatile player for the 49ers offense.
By the end of the season, McDonald was getting praise for his blocking and even stepped into an emergency role as a blocking fullback in the playoff victory over Carolina when Will Tukuafu was knocked out of the game with an injury. After that game, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh said McDonald “blocked very well.”
For McDonald, 2013 was one, long football clinic. In order to earn playing time, he had to learn how to block the core defenders, the big defensive linemen and linebackers – something he wasn’t often asked to do at Rice.
“It’s a completely different game,” McDonald told the team’s website recently. “You really just had to make sure your shoulders are over your toes and you’re balanced, technique-wise, going up against guys, doing film study. I can’t put a finger on everything (learned). It’s game experience, week to week, and you get more comfortable in the offense.”
As a receiver, too, McDonald had to earn his opportunities. In 15 regular-season games he was targeted just 19 times and had eight catches for 119 yards, no touchdowns and had a few notable drops. In three postseason games, quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw to him just once, which McDonald caught for a 13-yard gain.
McDonald’s receiving numbers as the No. 2 tight end were a steep dropoff from the production of Walker, who had 21 catches in 2012, 19 in 2011 and 29 in 2010 for a combined six touchdowns.
Yet Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman liked McDonald’s progress. By the end of the season, the coaching staff had much more confidence in his play, something that should carry over into 2014 for an increase in opportunities.
“He’s getting a lot better without question,” Roman told Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com. “The things, the nuances, all the little tricks of the trade, he’s starting to get a little bit more comfortable with. He’s developing nicely into the player that we really felt he would be. He’s been a very valuable asset for us this year.”
The 49ers obviously liked what they saw of McDonald’s potential at Rice. They traded up six spots in the second round to take him as the fourth tight end in the draft. As a receiver at Rice, McDonald showed the ability to make plays once he got the ball in his hands. He had 36 catches in his final year in college, with 28 going for first downs.
After drafting McDonald, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch that he liked McDonald over many other tight ends in the draft because of four factors: his versatility, size, wingspan and hand size. His arm length, in fact, was No. 1 (34 3/8 inches) among the highest-rated tight ends available.
Former Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, now an analyst for NFL.com, said he thought the 49ers made a marvelous pick.
“I love Vance McDonald,” Brandt told Branch. “This is an excellent athlete. He’s big and he’s fast and I thought he was the second-best tight end out there.”
Now, with a season under his belt, McDonald should be able to make much more of an impact in 2014.