There was some concern about where the 49ers would turn at tight end after they let Delanie Walker go during free agency without much of a fight. The team still had Vernon Davis, but their system had often relied on two tight end sets. Walker’s Swiss army knife like skill set allowed the Niners to move him all over the field as both a blocker and receiver. Many experts thought they would target a tight end in the draft to replace Walker. Those experts were right, they just had the wrong tight end.
Former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz seemed like a perfect fit for San Francisco. He was familiar with Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman from their time together with the Cardinal. With the Niners owning the second pick of the 2nd round (34th overall) and Ertz still on the board, it looked like the prediction was about to come true. The 49ers had other plans however, and traded back out of the pick. Ertz was selected with the 35th pick of the draft by the Eagles and the 49ers went with defensive end Tank Carradine five picks later. As the second round progressed, the 49ers made a move up from their own pick (61st overall) and selected Rice tight end Vance McDonald with the 55th overall selection.
McDonald is an intriguing prospect. Having played mostly out of the slot at Rice, he was proficient in the passing game and had experience blocking on the edge. Of the 36 catches he recorded in 2012, 28 of them went for first downs. His size (6’4, 267 pounds) and versatility could once again give the 49ers a tight end who could provide match up problems for the defense.
As training camp has progressed, McDonald is looking like someone who can make a big impact for the 49ers this season. He was targeted four times in the preseason opener and had four catches for 66 yards. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman came away impressed with the rookie tight end’s effort.
“I thought Vance took a good step forward in the game,” said Roman. “Liked the look in his eye before the game. I think he graded out pretty well. Like anybody else, there’s plays that he wished he could have back. But for a good young guy like him, great learning experience. And one of the key things you look for is everybody makes mistakes we’re all human. Do you sit and make the same mistake twice. Guys that don’t, then they progress and they just keep getting better and that’s the emphasis.”
McDonald may not be as good a blocker, but his role in the passing game could trump that of Walker’s. As much as Walker was tough to match up with, he often struggled holding onto the ball and had seven dropped passes in 2012. Considering he only had 21 receptions, that number of drops is alarming. With the 49ers looking for receiving options beyond Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, McDonald could be in line for a big role in the offense if he continues his current trajectory.
Even with the early success, McDonald has occurred a bit of a setback. Harbaugh said the rookie tight end will be out seven to 10 days and miss Friday’s game against the Chiefs with an undisclosed injury. The move to sit him down appears to be more precautionary than serious.
“He’s working through a little something this week, better to be cautious,” Harbaugh said. “Everybody has high hopes and expectations for Vance. He’s done a very good job.”
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