ORLANDO, Fla. – It has taken tight end Vance McDonald a while, but he has become a legitimate threat in the 49ers’ passing game.
McDonald, a second-round draft pick in 2013, recorded just 10 receptions in his first two seasons. He started to see more action last season after the 49ers dealt Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos at the trade deadline. He has started 20 games the past two seasons, including all nine games in which he has appeared this year.
“I just always look back at the opportunity when Vernon went to (Denver),” McDonald said. “Just being able to have the trust and the opportunity to start games and play every down.”
Through three seasons, McDonald had not produced and given few indications that he warranted a contract extension. But as a player who is scheduled for unrestricted free agency in the offseason, McDonald is making a convincing argument to become a priority for the 49ers to re-sign.
McDonald ranks third on the 49ers with 22 receptions and second behind Jeremy Kerley with 382 receiving yards. McDonald has a team-leading four touchdown catches, including scoring plays of 75 and 65 yards.
“He’s one of our weapons on the offensive side of the ball and he runs better than most tight ends in this league,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. “So really depends on week to week what people have available at the safety spot to kind of match up with him. But he’s certainly someone that I think people defensively have to game plan for.”
Even the 49ers’ designated deep threat, wide receiver Torrey Smith, has not been able to shake free for as many big gains as McDonald, who is listed at 267 pounds.
“Vance has done a great job,” Smith said. “I’m very happy for him, especially knowing how hard he’s been fighting over the years. He’s finally getting a chance to show what he can do. And he’s done a great job. He’s very fast. That’s what helps him out a lot. It’s not often you can get a tight end and take it to the house, running past everyone.”
McDonald said he believes Kelly’s system allows him a greater opportunity to be part of the team’s passing attack.
“It provides the tight end an opportunity to be a big playmaker,” McDonald said. “I’ve welcomed that idea and embraced that role this year. It’s been a lot of fun.
“As an offense, I like looking at a bigger picture, and we have to be more consistent. I can help with that and I’m trying my best.”