The 49ers previous decision makers once envisioned Vance McDonald taking over the role of No. 1 tight end from Vernon Davis. The team's new front office had an entirely different take, dealing McDonald to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday for a mid-round draft pick.
If McDonald passes a physical as expected, the 49ers will get Pittsburgh’s fourth-round pick in the upcoming draft in exchange for McDonald and the 49ers’ fifth-round pick in 2018. The compensation for San Francisco isn't much, though the Steelers will take over the five-year contract that McDonald signed in December and the 49ers will start fresh at the position.
One of those new players is George Kittle, a fifth-round pick in April who was immediately visible and productive in the 49ers' offseason practices. Kittle estimated that 80 percent of the snaps he took in Iowa's pro-style offense were on running plays, which automatically gives him a leg up on learning an NFL offense.
"Our offenses are very similar," Kittle said Tuesday. "I don't think that there's anything that we've done here so far that's been 100 percent different than what we did at Iowa, which is really nice."
The team now has five tight ends on the roster: Kittle, Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek, Blake Bell and undrafted rookie Cole Hikutini. Most teams keep three on the 53-man roster, although fullback Kyle Juszczyk also lines up at tight end at times and could allow the 49ers to get away with just two tight ends in 2017.
The 49ers tried to trade McDonald during the draft and were open about the discussions they had.
“I think that’s the reality of new regimes coming in,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said in April. “That’s not to say he can’t fit into our scheme. Frankly, we received some interest from some other people, and then we did explore some options throughout the league with Vance.”
Former 49ers general manager Trent Baalke drafted McDonald early in the second round in 2013 and then in December signed him to a five-year contract extension worth has much as $35 million.
He averaged more than 16 yards a reception in 2016 and caught four touchdowns, one for 75 yards and another for 65 yards. He and Shannon Sharpe are the only tight ends in the last 20 years with two touchdowns catches of 65 yards or more in the same season.
But McDonald has yet to play a full 16-game season and perhaps lacked the toughness and grit Lynch and Kyle Shanahan are seeking as they rebuild the 49ers.
“We would like to thank Vance for his contributions to this organization on the field and in the community over the last four seasons,” Lynch said in a statement. “Although I have only known Vance for a short time, I quickly learned that he and his wife, Kendi, have been tremendous representatives for the team in the community and their service to others is quite commendable."
The 49ers traded a 2018 fourth-round pick to Denver to acquire running back Kapri Bibbs. They picked up extra second- and third-round picks in 2018 during draft-day trades with the Saints and Bears.
49ers’ 2018 draft picks
1st: own pick
2nd: own pick
3rd: own pick
6th: own pick
7th: own pick
* For CB Kenneth Acker