Niners Live is at it again and this time, like many before, we leave no stone unturned in: How Will Kyle Shanahan Deploy His Inherited Group of Tight Ends? Recently discussed at Niners Live, Can Kyle Shanahan Bring Out the Best in WRs Burbridge? Smelter? Now, let’s take a glance at Vance McDonald and Blake “the Belldozer” Bell.
First up: Vance McDonald
McDonald, 6’4” and 267lbs, was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft with the 55th overall selection out of Rice University. In 2016, he had a career-high year, promptly leading to the San Francisco 49ers to offer and McDonald to sign an extension on Dec. 9, 2016. It’s not every day that a tight end on a team has the two longest touchdown receptions, 75 and 65 yards on the season, and to top it off he scampered more than 40 yards on both plays to score. Now hold that thought for a second.
Important to note: In 2016, McDonald, in only 11 games started, amassed a total snap count of 443 with only 247 being pass snaps, 174 run block snaps, and 22 pass block snaps (per Pro Football Focus subscription required). Can we say, “Limited opportunities”? Speaking of limited…
Well, consider this: Atlanta’s tight end, Jacob Tamme, last season under then-offensive coordinator and now new 49er coach Kyle Shanahan, had 331 total snaps with 192 being pass snaps, 113 run block snaps, and 26 pass block snaps in only five games started after suffering a season-ending injury. Tamme could be poised to follow Shanahan to the 49ers if he didn’t re-sign with the Atlanta Falcons (ESPN.com).
Who’s up next? Blake “the Belldozer” Bell
Blake Bell, on the other hand, is still seen as a mystery of some sort as recently discussed on Niners Live. Bell, a former quarterback out of Oklahoma with a feel for running in space on routes against the zone, is a confident pass-catcher with the ability to run through safeties and maximize each catch.
Will Kyle Shanahan unleash “the Belldozer” as their red zone specialist? Hold that question.
Bell plays with a competitive spirit, and is a very coachable and willing blocker. So far in two seasons with only five starts, Bell has amassed 34 targets, resulting in just 19 receptions for 273 yards. His 14.4 yards per catch could be a good indicator that Bell deserves more opportunities. Note: Blake Bell towards the end of the 2016 season was placed on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury.
The third wheel/option is the 6’5” and 252lbs Garrett Celek who had 29 catches and three touchdowns in 2016; however, his five drops on 50 targets at a 10.0 percent drop radius led the team. With the options presented, and Kyle Shanahan looking long and hard at free-agent-to-be Tamme as a contributing acquisition, Celek may be the odd man out. Celek’s 2017 base salary of $1.55 million is guaranteed for injury and will become fully guaranteed on April 1, 2017. Interesting to note: Bell’s base salary for 2016 is only a whopping $615,000.
How will Shanahan deploy?
Shanahan sure made the best out of Atlanta rookie tight end, the 6’3” and 248lbs Austin Hooper, with whom Bell shares some similar physical attributes. Shanahan makes use of his tight ends by creating miss-matches in coverage via the slot or spread out wide like for example with smaller safeties such as the 5’11″ and 215lbs Patrick Chung as seen in the video or in the red zone utilizing clear size advantages. Hooper racked up 19 receptions for 271 yards and three TDs on only 17 targets, capping his first season in the NFL with a huge red zone touchdown catch in the Super Bowl as aforementioned.
The realization of a rebuild in the Bay Area will be reality for 49er faithfuls for a few years to come. Is McDonald or Bell a finished product? No, far from it. But they are improving every year with more opportunities to strut their stuff. Keep in mind that from 2013-2015, McDonald’s drop rate was insane, averaging out at 19.4 percent. Vance has worked hard to rectify this issue and has become more relaxed on the field, stating that he was pressed at times early in his career. In 2016, he improved dramatically, cutting his drop percentage more than half to 8.3 percent (Niners live drops, targets, receptions report). Could Vance McDonald be Kyle Shanahan’s better version of Jacob Tamme? Or would he prefer to deploy both and bring in Tamme, a solid vet to help with Bell’s development? While posing as a dual threat against opposing linebackers? Probably so.
Will Shanahan have his eyes wide open and deploy these weapons of mismatched problems? Good question. There’s a lot of fans who are anxious to see Mr. “Instant Offense” Kyle Shanahan wave his magic wand and turn this hapless offense into a juggernaut for years to come. Slow your roll there, Kemo Sabe…
On a Niners Live side note: Even If Tamme’s services are not able to be obtained, look for General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan through extended free agency or draft to add to the mix of untapped talents.
As always, keep your eyes wide open, 49er fans. Niners Live will be watching with you. #eyeswideopen and often imitated but never duplicated… Go Niners.
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All records, statistics, and accolades are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, Pro Football Focus, 49ers.com, ESPN.com, NFL.com unless otherwise indicated. Author, Editor Niners Live. Co-Author, Irvin Johnson Staff Writer at Niners Live.