No college skill position is harder to project at the NFL level than tight end. Why? Because the position is heavily dependent on scheme. Sure, the same could be said of almost every position on the field, but the tight end position is more scheme specific, especially when it comes to a smash-mouth team as opposed to a pass-first team.
Case in point. Take a look at San Francisco 49ers TE Vance McDonald.
When the 49ers drafted him in the second-round (No. 55) of the 2013 NFL Draft, the 49ers mainly operated out of a man-gap blocking scheme. A power based run offense primarily using 21, 12, and 22 personnel, the 49ers heavily favored bigger tight ends, who had the potential to inline block, as opposed to the sexier pass catcher.
“I just know that I’m extremely under-developed [inline blocking] in that regard, and I know I have a lot of potential [31 reps on bench press]. I think I have the right size [6-4, 267] and frame [34-plus inch arms] in order to handle that responsibility. But I’m ready to take the challenge,” McDonald told beat writers shortly after being drafted.
Some of you may be asking, what do the numbers 21, 12, and 22 mean? Good question. The first digit of the number indicates the number of running backs on the field while the second-digit represents the number of tight ends. (see table above)
The 49ers who used run-heavy formations required numerous tight end sets. Whether delivering a down block on a blitzing linebacker or setting the edge outside the tackle box (C-Gap), the tight end position was one of the most valued under then 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh’s power O system.
How valued? Well considering the team lost it’s swiss army knife, TE Delanie Walker to the Tennessee Titans, the 49ers quickly focused on the draft to fill his void. Depth at the position was so important from a personnel standpoint, the team traded up six spots with the Green Bay Packers to secure McDonald’s services.
But this is a different era, different team, and different coaching staff than 2013. The schematics are different which in turn has a domino effect on the organization as a whole. Under new 49ers HC Chip Kelly‘s offense, the Y receiver (tight end) is required to be more of a receiving threat.
Could that be a big reason why Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles drafted TE Zach Ertz over McDonald? Probably. Let’s be honest. Kelly is a big reason why Ertz was paid a king’s ransom this off-season. A five-year deal worth up to $42 million, Ertz wasn’t given that type of bread because of his elite blocking skills.
“I owe a lot of my success, and a lot of my future success, to Coach Kelly,” Ertz said. And I couldn’t agree more. In Ertz’s first three seasons under Kelly he racked up 169 catches for 2,024 yards and 9 touchdowns.
Now that we figured out Kelly’s basic schematics from a tight end perspective, the question remains, which 49ers tight end will start in 2016?
Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com already projected that player to be McDonald, but I wouldn’t hand the keys over just yet.
McDonald has demonstrated numerous times that his ball skills are marginal. Just look back to last year’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals. That type of stuff will drive Kelly mad. However, while I do agree McDonald has the inside track due to his versatility, I would not count out second-year TE Blake Bell.
Blake Bell came into today’s contest with 17 yards on 3 receptions. This one went for 48: pic.twitter.com/KNBFFPPBvK
— KNBR (@KNBR) November 29, 2015
At 6-6, 252, the “Bell-Dozer” will be out for blood in 2016. He’s raw but the potential is there. He has the hands and the versatility that Kelly covets in his offensive scheme. The drawback is that his route-running needs work. He takes false steps while his inability to sink his hips, will have defensive backs under-cutting routes. If Bell is much improved in this area, look for him to have a fighting chance.
Kelly is an offensive genius. His forward thinking and innovative approach to the game is unquestioned. But with the 49ers tight end position up for grabs, who will win the Y receiver role? That answer depends on who is the most versatile and fundamentally sound. From lining up in the slot, H-Back, to trips-formation, who ever does this best will ultimately be handed the keys.
Who will that player be? Time will tell as the camp battle is on!