When scouring the late rounds of your draft and the waiver wire for the next potential breakout TE, there are three things that I usually take into consideration above anything else – talent, opportunity and adjusted production.
Enter Vance McDonald.
A 2nd round pick in the 2013 draft, McDonald came into the league as a slot receiver in the body of a tight end. He wasn’t used often as an inline blocker, and instead spent the majority of his career blocking in the open field and running routes from the slot. When he was drafted he could block, but he didn’t excel at it. Unfortunately, some of these non-traditional TEs come into the league as poor blockers and can take quite a while to develop into well rounded players. Some of them flame out (Jace Amaro) and some of them flourish (Jimmy Graham). The upside is that you have a 6’4, 267 lb who runs and catches the ball like a WR.
At the combine McDonald posted best in his position at the bench press, broad jump, 3 cone and 60 yard shuttle. He also runs smooth routes and catches the ball naturally. From a measurables standpoint, he has everything you look for in an elite receiving TE.
Vance entered his 3rd season as a backup to Vernon Davis, but halfway through the year things changed quite drastically for the 49ers offense. The 49ers packaged a 7th round pick with Davis and traded him to the Broncos for 2 6th round picks. Kaepernick was benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert from week 9 on. We now enter this season with Vance looking like the unquestioned starter at TE.
The reason I call this “adjusted production” instead of just “production” is that most with larger data sets already have established values that aren’t subject to much change. By examining a smaller sample size and looking at the circumstances around surrounding it, i’m attempting to give some substance to the attempted extrapolation of data.
At first glance the production from Vance is pretty scattershot. But it’s a different picture when we look at how drastically his role on the team changed roughly halfway through the season.
Remember Davis and Kaep getting traded after week 8 and Gabbert taking over as the starter?
Here’s how the snap count played out the second half of last year:
So we have 5 games (weeks 9-12, 16, 17) where Vance was the unquestioned starter, and 2 games where he was either injured or working his way back from an injury (13, 15). In his 5 full games as a healthy starter he averaged 13.3 PPG, which is roughly TE7 production.
For the record again, yes I know how dangerous it can be to pluck out a set of stats and extrapolate that for an entire season.
So what’s not to like here?
Well, for one, this is the 49ers. They’re terrible pretty much everywhere you look. Their WR corps is one of the worst in recent memory. Blaine Gabbert is still serviceable at best.
But we’re looking at an uber talented, young tight end who looks like the unquestioned starter, entering a time in his career when most elite TEs start breaking through, and playing with a QB who he has clearly built some chemistry with.
If i’m looking for a flier with elite upside, this is where i’m looking.