SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers on Friday signed tight end Vance McDonald, one of the few big-play targets in their offense, to a five-year contract extension. Per ESPN, the deal is worth $35 million total and includes $16 million in guarantees.
McDonald, 26, was a second-round pick in 2013 and over his first two and half years was better known for untimely drops and turnovers than for clutch catches. However, he began to hit his stride last season after the 49ers traded tight end Vernon Davis. This season, McDonald ranks third on the team in both catches (24) and receiving yards (391) and has touchdown receptions of 75 and and 65 yards.
Davis, who was thought to be at the end of his career when the 49ers traded him, has had a bit of a resurgence in Washington, D.C., where he was born and raised. He has more catches (36) and yards (497) than McDonald.
The 49ers have $41.1 million in salary-cap space, more than any other team than the Cleveland Browns. Team officials have said for months they will begin spending that surplus on their own players, but finding worthy candidates has been tricky.
General manager Trent Baalke’s 11-man 2013 draft class is eligible to hit free agency in March. Two players taken that year, Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine, already had signed contract extensions. Both, however, are part of San Francisco’s 31st-ranked defense, and neither has distinguished himself this season. 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.
"Vance has shown consistent growth throughout his four-year career and his production this season is the result of his dedication and hard work,” Baalke said in a statement. “We believe he has only scratched the surface of what he will be able to accomplish in his career.”
McDonald presented a dilemma for the team. 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.
McDonald’s 16.3-yard per-catch average ranks 10th in the NFL and is second only to New England’s Rob Gronkowski among tight ends.
“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.”