When the 49ers decided to let Delanie Walker depart in free agency this past offseason, many Niners fans clamored for the team to draft Stanford tight end Zach Ertz.
General manager Trent Baalke and has staff had other ideas, however. They knew about Vance McDonald.
In the second round of the NFL draft in April, the 49ers traded up to take McDonald, a tight end from Rice that one scouting analysis called “the most intriguing tight end on the board.”
At 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds, McDonald was a big target at Rice, but smooth enough to many times work out of the slot, playing the role of wide receiver. His versatility obviously caught the eyes of the 49ers, who had used Walker in much the same way in San Francisco.
Over his final two seasons at Rice, McDonald caught 79 passes for seven touchdowns.
Now trying to win a job as the backup to starting tight end Vernon Davis, McDonald is off and running.
In his first exhibition game against the Denver Broncos last week, McDonald made four catches for 66 yards, and his work in the team’s Santa Clara training camp has drawn praise from coaches and teammates, from offensive coordinator Greg Roman to head coach Jim Harbaugh and Davis.
“Everybody has high hopes and expectations for Vance,” Harbaugh told reporters this week. “He’s done a very good job.”
Davis told Janie McCauley of the Associated Press that, from what he’s seen, McDonald could one day be one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
“He’s just one of those guys, when he walks in the room, he brightens the room up,” Davis said of McDonald. “That’s what I love about him. He’s a big dude, he’s humble, he works. He wants to be the best tight end.”
At first, McDonald said his head was swimming when he joined the 49ers, trying to soak in all the plays and formations and learn his roles. Now, things are becoming more clear and he’s not having to think as much when he’s on the field. He’s seeing things and reacting immediately, adjusting as he needs to the defense and quarterback's calls.
“You’ve got to be smooth and quick,” McDonald said. “It’s just a different game."
And, while he doesn’t have quite the same skill set as Walker, he believes he can fill his big shoes. Walker played an important role as a versatile receiver and terrific blocker.
“I might not be as fast as Delanie was but I certainly hope to say that I can use technique to get open,” McDonald said.
McDonald isn’t expected to play in Friday night’s exhibition game in Kansas City. Harbaugh said McDonald is simply working through an undisclosed minor injury and will be held out for precautionary reasons.
But the big tight end should get plenty of chances to prove himself over the final two exhibitions and the rest of training camp. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick says McDonald is important to the 49ers in 2013.
“He has big shoes to fill with Delanie leaving,” Kaepernick told reporters Monday. “So he’s someone we need to step up quick as well. And we need him to be able to make plays for us not only in the red zone but in the field.”