Rookie tight end Vance McDonald has played well in OTAs and minicamps for the 49ers. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Though no rookies have yet scored a touchdown or made a key block or tackle in a real NFL game, many already have caught the eyes of teammates, coaches and the media as players who might make an impact in 2013.
Chris Wesseling, who writes for NFL.com’s Around the League section, picked out nine rookies that have been particularly good so far in minicamps and organized team activities (OTAs) since being drafted in April.
Among those is Niners tight end Vance McDonald, a second-round pick from Rice (the 55th overall selection in the draft) who caught 120 passes for 1,513 yards and 15 scores in four years of college football.
Wesseling puts McDonald in a group that consists of Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Jaguars safety Johnathan Cyprien, Chargers linebacker Manti Te’o, Texans safety D.J. Swearinger, Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, Ravens safety Matt Elam, Raiders linebacker Sio Moore and Cardinals safety Tyrann Mathieu.
McDonald, says Wesseling, emerged as a favorite target of 49ers quarterbacks and is expected to fill the role vacated by Delanie Walker, who left as a free agent.
Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, also filed positive reports about McDonald’s performance in OTAs and minicamps.
“McDonald may have been the biggest standout among the (49ers') 11-man draft class,” wrote Barrows. “The 6-4, 270-pound tight end showed why Rice used him so heavily as a wideout. He was a favorite for all the quarterbacks this spring, and he showed a real knack for catching passes that weren’t exactly quite on target.
“McDonald has a big wingspan (34½-inch arms) and a huge catching radius.”
Barrows also noted his agility and ability to adjust while running his routes, to catch balls thrown behind him or too high or too low, noting it builds confident with quarterbacks.
Coach Jim Harbaugh also called McDonald “outstanding” after the final day of minicamp, when McDonald – on his birthday – made several fine catches.
“We’ll have to have more Vance McDonald birthdays,” Harbaugh told reporters.
As Barrow noted, however, how much playing time McDonald gets may depend on how well he blocks – a particular strength of Walker, who was a key player in the 49ers’ strong running game.
If McDonald can produce in that area, the 49ers will have a terrific tandem of pass-catching tight ends, with veteran Vernon Davis the starter.
The scouting report done by the National Football Post on McDonald before the draft is encouraging. It indicates McDonald may be an adept blocker capable of adapting quickly to the NFL game.
“He has not been used as an in-line blocker but more out of the slot,” it reads. “But he is a very willing blocker who does a very nice job of blocking out in space. He is a tough competitior with a big body and he plays an aggressive brand of football.”