When you take a look at the San Francisco 49ers roster, perhaps no position group appears more worrisome than the wide receivers. While they do have a legitimate deep threat in veteran WR Torrey Smith, the rest of the group is littered with question marks. In fact, the other two current starters, WR Quinton Patton and WR Bruce Ellington, have combined for only 55 receptions over five NFL seasons. Considering the lack of options, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the tight ends play a large role in the passing game this season, specifically the surging TE Vance McDonald.
A second-round pick in 2013, the former Rice product was mostly invisible throughout the first two-and-half years of his career. In his first 30 regular season NFL games (all with QB Colin Kaepernick under center), McDonald was targeted 38 times and caught 17 of those balls (44.7 percent) for 194 yards. He failed to score even a single touchdown. To be fair, McDonald also had his share of drops, which was a factor in the lack of opportunities and low completion percentage.
With TE Garrett Celek playing a bigger role, and TE Blake Bell developing, it looked like McDonald’s days could be numbered in San Francisco. But life in the NFL can be a fickle one, and it turned out that a quarterback change was exactly what McDonald needed to jump-start his floundering career.
Kaepernick was benched after the team limped to a 2-6 start in 2015, and QB Blaine Gabbert was inserted to try and revive the offense. McDonald had an instant rapport with Gabbert, and looked like a different player the second half of the season. In seven games, McDonald was targeted 35 times and caught 23 passes (65.7 percent). He gained 281 yards and brought down the only three touchdowns of his career. Over 16 games, that’s a pace of 52/642/7.
With Kaepernick hurting, it looks like Gabbert has a serious leg up on the current quarterback competition, which is good news for McDonald. In Week 1 of the preseason, the two picked up where they left off, as McDonald hauled in a 43-yard touchdown throw in the first quarter. It was a welcome sight for HC Chip Kelly, who is still trying to figure out what his pecking order will be.
While it remains to be seen if Gabbert can hold on to the starting role and if McDonald can continue his upward trend, the 49ers have to be happy with the connection the two of them seem to have at the moment. With the arrow pointed up, McDonald looks like he’ll be a huge part of the offense, and could be a break out star in 2016.