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The 49ers don’t know what to do with Vance McDonald

SANTA CLARA — Vance McDonald has been the most consistent tight end in 49ers training camp, and he might not end up on the San Francisco roster.

Come again?

Day after day, McDonald continues to show up on the stat sheet during 11-on-11’s. Tuesday, he burnt Eric Reid on a crossing pattern 30 yards across the field and hauled in the catch from Brian Hoyer. McDonald’s speed, his hands and his blocking are all average, but there’s little debate as to who the most reliable tight end at 49ers camp has been.

The 49ers’ conundrum is that they initially wanted to move on from McDonald, but circumstances and his own play might not let them. They lined up three new replacements to take his spot, but the first 10 days of training camp haven’t gone exactly as planned.

After being transparent with the media about shopping McDonald during the NFL Draft, both the player and the organization said things have been patched up.

“That’s the reality of new regimes coming in, new schemes,” John Lynch said on April 29. “That’s not to say he can’t fit into our scheme. Frankly, we received some interest from other people, then we did explore some options throughout the league with Vance.”

The deck was stacked against McDonald making the 49ers, but the competing cards haven’t lived up to the hype. A hamstring injury to fifth-round pick George Kittle has dampened the initial enthusiasm about his surge during the spring. Kittle certainly doesn’t look ready to be a No. 1 NFL tight end in September. Logan Paulsen is locking up his 53-man roster spot, but he’s mostly your banshee blocker in the run game, not your versatile pass catcher. Shifty undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini produces occasional highs, but he’s also vanished from several practices and feels more like a luxury piece than a necessity.

If you decide to move on from McDonald, what happens if Kittle is injured during the regular season — or can’t seem to shake opponents’ coverage like he could without pads in OTAs? The same story applies for Hikutini. Trotting out two rookie pass catching tight ends is extremely risky. Their transition to the pro game won’t be entirely smooth.

So, why not carry four tight ends? The 49ers sort of eliminated that possibility by signing Kyle Juszczyk. Even though he barely lines up at the position, Juszczyk often meets in the tight ends room. He’s taking up one roster spot for his dynamic abilities as a receiver. Four tight ends plus Juszczyk seems excessive.

Well, the 49ers could technically carry four tight ends, but then you’re talking about carrying just three running backs or five wide receivers. The team seems to be swooning over running back Matt Breida, who overall has been more impressive than fourth-round pick Joe Williams. Because Trent Taylor is really the only young receiver, Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden Jr. will be given chances by Shanahan in the preseason. I’d bet Shanahan will push to hold onto one of those two. If the 49ers want to keep McDonald, they’ll have to stash somebody on the practice squad who might get scooped up.

Former GM Trent Baalke signed McDonald to a three-year, $19.5 million extension on Dec. 9 last season. McDonald is due to make $4.1 million in 2017, the eighth-highest salary on the roster. Cutting him isn’t really an option. McDonald would carry a $7.7 million dead cap number, nearly double the salary the team would have to pay him anyway. The 49ers have a club-option for his contract in 2020 and 2021.

If McDonald continues to play like this throughout the preseason, the 49ers will have no choice but the change their plans. Hikutini’s athleticism has more potential than a 27-year-old McDonald, but his inexperience could hurt the entire offense. Last season McDonald finished 38th out of all tight ends in receptions (24), 29th in yards (391) and 10th in yards per catch (16.3).

If McDonald does slump some, and Shanahan feels like he can survive with a young group at tight end, trading McDonald starts to make a whole lot of sense. The 49ers could use a lot more help at cornerback, as evidence by their signing of Asa Jackson on Tuesday. Lynch does love collecting draft picks. There will obviously be more injuries during the preseason that could help San Francisco’s trade efforts.

The bottom line is that it’s starting to make more and more sense to keep McDonald. He’s probably only a one year placeholder at tight end, and keeping him will cost the 49ers a young player with potential.

But tight end is too important of a position to not have somebody you can count on. So far, McDonald’s been that guy in training camp.


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