When the 49ers selected Rice tight end Vance McDonald in the second round of the 2013 draft, general manager Trent Baalke cited all the things to like about him:
His 6-foot-4, 267-pound frame, his 34 3/8 arm length, his huge hands and his versatility. At Rice, McDonald was used all over the field – close to the tackles on some plays, in motion or split outside like a wide receiver on others.
The 49ers liked him so much, they even moved up in the round to get him.
And, Baalke wasn’t the only one who loved McDonald. Former Dallas Cowboys executive and current NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt said at the time: “I love Vance McDonald. This is an excellent athlete. He’s big and he’s fast and I thought he was the second best tight end out there.”
The Niners had lost versatile backup tight end Delanie Walker, but Brandt believed McDonald could step right in to replace him.
“He’ll be able to do all the things Walker did for them,” Brandt told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch shortly after the draft. “I’m excited to watch him develop.”
Yet McDonald hasn’t developed as a playmaker in the NFL, and that has caused problems for the 49ers. Last season they didn’t get nearly enough from starter Vernon Davis, and McDonald didn’t add much, either.
Plagued by a back injury in 2014, McDonald played in just eight games and had only two catches for 30 yards. In his rookie season of 2013 he played 15 games – developing into a much better blocker than the team believed he would be – but caught just eight passes on 19 targets for 119 yards.
So in two seasons McDonald – who was known as a reliable receiver at Rice with soft hands – has just 10 catches and been thrown to only 27 times.
Now the 49ers go into the April 30 draft hoping to get help at the tight end position in a season when the talent available at that position is thin. Also, the 49ers are looking at getting help at so many positions now – at cornerback, wide receiver, guard, inside linebacker and defensive line – that the development of McDonald into a pass-receiving threat could have at least put this position to rest.
Recently, a report by David Fucillo of SB Nation indicated the 49ers have met with tight ends Clive Walford of the University of Miami and Cameron Clear of Texas A&M.
Since joining the 49ers, McDonald has had some trouble with drops. Also, he’s been unable to gain the confidence – or attention – of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Now McDonald is rehabbing after surgery to correct a problem with a disc issue.
After two seasons, the 49ers certainly aren’t giving up on McDonald. He’s diligently improved his blocking abilities and has been a hard worker. And, last season, former head coach Jim Harbaugh said McDonald had shown steady improvement. “We look forward to this (injury) being a bump in the road for him,” said Harbaugh.
But it certainly seems likely that the 49ers will be looking for another tight end in this draft to sharpen the competition behind Davis and challenge McDonald, Derek Carrier and Garrett Celek for a roster spot.