The 2012 season was magical for the San Francisco 49ers. After taking over for an injured Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick looked like a superstar in the making. The 49ers rode the legs of Kaepernick and an extremely physical defense to a Super Bowl berth. One of the best positional groups on that team were the tight ends. Vernon Davis was a nightmare matchup. Delanie Walker was incredibly versatile, and contributed more to the team that the box score would show. Several years later, the 49ers have lost the magic of 2012. A contributing factor is Vance McDonald has been a huge step down at the tight end position. After being traded, McDonald’s dreadful time with the 49ers has come to an end.
San Francisco 49ers Finally Rid of Vance McDonald
A Bad First Impression
Vance McDonald was drafted in the second round in 2014 from Rice. The move was lauded by draft pundits. The 49ers traded up just ahead of the rival Seattle Seahawks to select him. He was viewed as the replacement to Delanie Walker. Walker was a “Swiss army knife” for the 49ers, and the perfect second tight end to Vernon Davis. McDonald would try to fill the void left by Walkers free agency departure to the Tennessee Titans.
In his rookie campaign, McDonald did not come close to matching Walker’s production. McDonald had far less counting stats, and a horrible drop rate. He had eight receptions on the year to go along with three drops. He also failed to register a touchdown in his rookie campaign, despite the team success of the 49ers.
McDonald was also not as versatile as Walker. Walker lined up as a fullback, a wide receiver, tight end, and was a special team’s ace. McDonald’s speed and agility pointed to an ability to line up in multiple positions, but he was unable to do so. He lined up primarily as a tight end, and hardly had an impact. McDonald could not replicate Walker, which was the main reason he was drafted.
Lack of Production
McDonald’s career did not get better after his rookie year. His second year saw much of the same as the first: hardly any production. He mustered only two catches throughout the entirety of the year, and had the same number of drops as receptions. After the 2014 season, it was beginning to look like he didn’t belong in the league.
2015 was a better year for McDonald. After Vernon Davis was traded, he saw an uptick in production. Instead of replacing Walker, he now had to replace a 49er great in Davis. This allowed for McDonald to get more targets. As was a pattern, McDonald had numerous drops. With six dropped passes, McDonald had the third most drops by a tight end in 2015.
2016 was McDonald’s best year. He had a career high in both touchdowns and yards. However, a good percentage of his production came on one play. Late in the game against the Carolina Panthers, McDonald was able to take a corner route 75 yards for a touchdown. Upon first viewing, the play looks impressive. However, a defensive back had fallen down, allowing for the yards after the catch. The real highlight of the play was the vicious block Quinton Patton had on Luke Kuechly, allowing McDonald to score freely. Drops were still an issue, including a crucial drop in the end zone against the Miami Dolphins. It was his best year, but it still was not an impressive showing.
Vance McDonald was drafted under the Jim Harbaugh regime. He managed to become the starter under Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly. Trent Baalke tried to ensure McDonald stayed a 49er for the foreseeable future, signing McDonald to an extension as one of as his last moves as general manager. The hiring of Kyle Shanahan allowed for McDonald to be shown the door. Shanahan has a plan for what he wants in his offensive players, and McDonald did not fit that.
As offensive coordinator, Shanahan offenses featured tight ends that were more of safety valves. Owen Daniels, Logan Paulsen, and Austin Hooper were not flashy tight ends, but were incredibly reliable. The same could not be said about McDonald and his high drop rate. When rumors circulated that the 49ers were shopping McDonald, it made sense.
The 49ers now seem content moving forward with their current tight end group. Rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini will be given a shot to show what they can do. Veteran Logan Paulsen will provide a stable tight end to depend on in the case that Kittle and Hikutini are not ready. Kyle Juszczyk is also versatile enough to take some snaps at tight end. The 49ers knew what they had in McDonald, and knew it was time for a change.
Vance McDonald is not a good tight end. His hands are too inconsistent to be relied on. The trade of McDonald and a fifth round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a fourth round pick is great for the 49ers. They may only move up several spots, but they cleared a player whom they did not like off their cap for the coming years. Most likely, he will see an uptick in production due to playing in the high-powered Steelers offense. Maybe a change of scenery will get McDonald on track to living up to his potential. Or maybe he will remain unchanged, and drop from the league.