Vance McDonald is someone that for the most part has elicited a negative reaction from the fan base and the local and national media. He is someone that in the 1st 3 years of his career could never live up to the lofty expectations placed on him when he was selected with the 55th pick of the 2013 NFL draft. He was drafted ahead of Pro Bowler Travis Kelce, soon to be Pro Bowler Jordan Reed and his former teammate Luke Willson. He was expected to step in immediately & fill the void left by the departure of Delanie Walker, who went on to find tremendous success with the Tennessee Titans. He was also expected to eventually supplant the best Tight End in franchise history, Captain Torpedo Vernon Davis as the primary starting Tight End. Whether it was injuries (11 games missed due to injuries from 2013 to 2015), lack of rapport with QB Colin Kaepernick or inconsistent hands (a drop rate of 19.4) he could never find his footing with the team.
There began to be a subtle yet significant turn around in his career when Blaine Gabbert replaced a then struggling and injured Colin Kaepernick as the starting QB of the team last season. In the last 8 weeks of the 2015 season he amassed 23 catches for 281 yards & 3 TDs (the 1st 3 of his career), it had been the best stretch of his young career. Soon after the season concluded Head Coach Jim Tomsula and most of his coaching staff were fired and replaced with Chip Kelly and a staff that brought with them the promise of a more productive and explosive offense, even if Blaine Gabbert remained the starting QB. During the offseason program and into training camp there was a positive buzz surrounding Vance McDonald, which lead to several outlets including Pro Football Focus proclaiming McDonald as a potential breakout candidate in Chip Kelly’s 1st year as Head Coach and offensive signal caller. There was an obvious change in his demeanor, many pointed to the birth of his 1st child as the primary reason behind the change in the way he carried himself.
Although the preseason is not generally a good indicator of the success a player will or will not have during the regular season the 1st 2 games of the preseason (5 catches for 90 yards and a TD) showcased McDonald as someone who could potentially thrive in the 49ers’ offense. That being said the 1st 8 weeks of the 2016 season were very reminiscent of the 1st 2 and a half years of his career, little in terms of impact, 6 catches for 142 yards and 2 TDs. McDonald also missed weeks 4 and 5 due to injury. His season started turning around in a similar way to last season, a struggling and generally ineffective Blaine Gabbert was replaced with Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers offense struggled in the 1st few weeks with Colin Kaepernick at the helm although most have attributed that to Kaepernick playing his way back into game shape but since the team's bye in week 8 McDonald’s production has skyrocketed.
In the past 4 weeks he has amassed 14 catches for 240 yards and 2 TDs. Due in large part the production of the past month he has already surpassed his career highs in yards and TDs while being only 8 catches away from matching his career best in receptions. He is 5th amongst all NFL pass catchers in yards per catch at 17.4 (2nd behind Rob Gronkowski amongst Tight Ends), he is tied for 3rd amongst NFL Tight Ends with 4 TDs (the team leader) and has become a significantly more consistent receiver (Drop rate has decreased to 8.3%). For 2013 to 2015 McDonald amassed only 3 games in which he had 50+ yards receiving, in just 9 games played in 2016 he has already surpassed that number (had his 4th such game last week against the Dolphins). Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle crunched the numbers and found that in his past 16 games, which coincide when the departure of Vernon Davis, McDonald has accumulated 45 catches for 663 yards and 7 TDs, more than respectable numbers for a starting TE
Evidence of his progress as an NFL Tight End goes beyond the standard statistics that fans and media generally subscribe to. Football Outsiders is a great website for those fans that seek a more analytical approach to analyzing the performance of players and teams throughout the league. DYAR stands for Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, they describe this as “the value of the performance on plays where this TE caught the ball, compared to a replacement-level TE in the same game situations and then translated into yardage”. In 2013 McDonald had a -20 DYAR, he ranked 18th out of 21 Tight Ends that caught between 10-24 passes. In 2014 his play was so ineffective that he did not register on their website for the season. In 2015 he moved up into the next section of their rankings but had a lower DYAR than he had in his rookie year, he registered a -34 DYAR, which was good for 40th amongst NFL Tight Ends that caught a minimum of 25 passes. Through week 12 of the 2016 season McDonald has a DYAR of 47, which is good for 15th amongst Tight Ends who have caught a minimum of 25 passes.
DVOA is another method that the folks at Football Outsiders have developed in order to analyze the performance of players and teams. DVOA stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, they describe it as, “This number represents value, per play, over an average Tight End in the same game situations. The more positive the DVOA rating, the better the player’s performance.” Much like his DYAR rating at the beginning of his career was amongst the worst in the league so was his DVOA rating. His DVOA rating in his rookie season was -23.8%, which placed his 14th out of 21 Tight Ends who caught fewer than 25 passes. His performance in 2014 did not qualify himself to be ranked by Football Outsiders as he only caught 2 passes for 30 yards while missing 8 games during that season. In 2015 his DYOA rating was -19.2, good for being ranked 43rd out of 51 Tight Ends who qualified. 2016 has seen a dramatic jump in his DVOA rating, as of the beginning of week 13 he has a very respectable 10.2% rating, which has him ranked as the 13th best Tight End in the NFL.
Now what does the last year and a half of McDonald’s career mean for the future? Does it mean that we are beginning to see the ascension of a talented Tight End who is coming into his own as a pass catcher? Are we seeing a mirage? Are we seeing the byproduct of a Tight End friendly offense? Is his production and impact due in part to “Contract Year” syndrome? Is his production due to becoming a more focal point of the offense? Only Vance McDonald’s play going forward will answer these questions, what the 49ers have to answer is whether or not they are willing to gamble on McDonald’s future performance. Are they willing to gamble on Garrett Celek, Blake Bell, or a draft pick to replace McDonald’s impact on the field. Are they willing to gamble that a free agent such as Martellus Bennett would even entertain coming to the 49ers.
Truthfully the answer to all of these questions are ambiguous at best, they have no assurances that if they resigned McDonald he will continue to ascend, they have no assurances that if they let him leave via free agency that they would be able to replace his production or impact.. The franchise at the moment is not in the position to allow players that have shown progress during a very difficult period just walk out the door. They have to trust that McDonald has really turned a corner in his career and that under the stewardship of Chip Kelly and potentially Colin Kaepernick he will continue to develop and ascend. That is not to say that they should simply resign McDonald, more must be done not only to protect themselves against McDonald reverting to his 2013-2014 form but also to help ensure that McDonald continues to grow as a Tight End. Outside of his continued growth as a player the best thing the 49ers organization can do for Vance McDonald is to stabilize the QB position and improve the pass catching group around him, especially on the perimeter. Forcing teams to respect the perimeter wide receivers opens up more passing lanes for McDonald to operate and take advantage of his athletic ability. For a player like McDonald comfort plays a huge role in performance, stabilizing the QB (I.e. Colin Kaepernick returning for the 2017 season) will provide McDonald the comfort he needs in order to make an impact.
Although still a flawed player the last 16 games in which Vance McDonald has played is tangible evidence of why the 49ers selected him with the 55th pick of the 2013 NFL draft. Beyond the common statistics that we use to gauge the performance of a player there is analytical evidence that McDonald has really grown as a player the last season and a half. Over the remaining 5 weeks of the season McDonald has the opportunity to solidify his future with the organization, an organization that has become desperate for consistent play makers, one that cannot afford to let players that have shown progress walk out the door. Obviously we do not know if McDonald can help fill that role for the organization but the 2016 season, especially this period since their bye week has shown that he is capable of doing so.