Tight end Vance McDonald, who is scheduled to be a free agent in March, is “developing into the player we always thought he would,” 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said before Sunday’s game against the Miami Dolphins.
Speaking to the team’s KNBR radio broadcasters, Ted Robinson and Tim Ryan, Baalke agreed with Ryan that the defensive matchups in the upcoming game might allow McDonald to have a big day.
“He’s gotten much more consistent, he’s doing a good job blocking,” Baalke said. “He’s a good all-around football player, and he has a chance in this scheme to do some things, as you say, because the matchups are favorable.”
They were right.
McDonald, 26, led the 49ers in receiving yards with four catches for 60 yards. His 35-yard catch in the fourth quarter was the longest play the game for San Francisco, an honor that McDonald, one of the best athletes on the team and its fastest tight end, has had several times this season. His 75-yard touchdown in Week 2 is the 49ers’ longest play of the season. He also had a 65-yard catch-and-run touchdown in Week 9.
Among NFL tight ends with at least 20 catches, McDonald ranks second behind New England’s Rob Gronkowski in averaging 17.4 yards per catch entering this Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears.
“I think Vance is a tough matchup athletically for guys that are covering him,” offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins said Tuesday. “I think he’s a tough matchup when they play zones because of his athleticism. He can run. For that position, I think Vance can really run and he’s proven that with some of the explosive plays that he’s made. So we look for that to continue. We need it to.”
Still, Sunday’s game against Miami also highlighted some of McDonald’s weaknesses.
With Dolphins safety Michael Thomas bearing down on him, he wasn’t able to haul in a would-be touchdown pass in the first quarter. And he went to the sideline following a big hit during the team’s fourth-quarter comeback, though he returned to the field late in the game. Earlier in the year McDonald missed two games after absorbing a jarring hit against Seattle in Week 3.
McDonald’s play, of course, reflects on Baalke, whose future is cloudy as the 49ers begin the final stretch of the season with a 1-10 record.
His 11-man 2013 draft class is eligible to hit free agency in March. Two players taken that year, Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine, already have signed contract extensions. The 49ers also have picked up a one-year contract option for safety Eric Reid, who was the team’s first-round selection that season.
McDonald, who was taken in the second round, poses a dilemma. He didn’t play at the level one would expect from a tight end taken early in the second round during most of his first three seasons. But he’s taken off during his contract year and appears particularly well suited for coach Chip Kelly’s offense.
“It provides the tight end an opportunity to be a big playmaker,” McDonald said of Kelly’s system. “I welcome that idea and I’ve embraced that role this year, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Kelly hasn’t been shy about pointing out his lack of offensive weaponry. After the 49ers’ Week 11 loss to New England, he noted that with receiver Torrey Smith out with a shoulder injury that day, McDonald was their most explosive option.
“I think his ability at the tight end spot is really what we tried to kind of exploit a little bit there and I think you saw him a couple times,” Kelly said. “We hit him in the red zone for a touchdown. We had him on a deep crossing route late. We just missed him, but I think Vance kind of falls into that role a little bit for us.”