By PFC Draft Writer Andrew Kinsman @PFCAndrewK
Following a very productive college career, Vance McDonald earned consensus All C-USA tight end honours as a senior at Rice, where he has followed in the footsteps of James Casey (a productive draft choice for the Texans who recently signed free agent contract with the Eagles). His tight ends coach at Rice was David Sloan, a Pro Bowl TE for the Lions in 1999, and McDonald has drawn comparisons to Cowboys TE Jason Witten.
An accomplished all-round athlete (including track) at high school, McDonald showed improvement in each of his first three seasons, culminating in his 44 receptions for 541 yards and 5 TD junior season. His senior year figures were slightly down, with 36 receptions for 458 yards and only 2 TDs, partly because he was adapting to playing primarily in-line rather than in the slot, and partly because he missed three games with injury.
When McDonald returned from injury, he completed his collegiate career in fine style, catching 16 passes for 184 yards and a TD in the last two regular season games.
The 22-year-old McDonald finished his time at Rice with 120 receptions for 1,513 yards and 15 TDs.
In the absence of Travis Kelce due to injury, McDonald had a golden opportunity to establish himself as the best tight end participating in the Senior Bowl. And he did not disappoint in the practices, impressing scouts with his blend of size and athleticism. Although he did experience some drops, McDonald did a good job of catching the ball overall. However, he wasn’t able to make much impact in the game itself.
At the NFL Scouting Combine McDonald recorded a respectable but not exceptional 40-time of 4.69. However, he absolutely crushed the bench press with 31 reps, the second-best performance by a TE in the past six years. This feat is made even more remarkable by the fact that he has such long arms, which is a disadvantage in the bench press.
Representatives from 30 NFL teams witnessed his pro day on March 18. McDonald did not undertake another attempt at the 40, choosing to stand on all his Combine numbers. He did take part in positional drills, and Gil Brandt of NFL.com reported that he dropped some passes early on before ultimately looking good in both catching and blocking drills.
Even though he is one of the bigger tight ends in the draft, McDonald still has the speed to be a vertical threat. He has good hands, a clean character and has shown that he can be relied upon in the clutch: he was something of a first-down machine last season, as 28 of his 36 receptions resulted in first downs.
McDonald does not have the most secure hands in this draft class. He dropped some very catchable balls at Rice, at the Senior Bowl and at his pro day.
He is also yet to master the art of in-line blocking, as he was used almost exclusively in the slot and out wide prior to his senior season.
McDonald has had some health issues, including a surgery on each shoulder and a toe injury which caused him to miss three games last season.
Naturally there are some reservations about the level of competition that McDonald faced in his college career. However, to some extent these were assuaged by the fact that he looked very comfortable during Senior Bowl week.
The 6’4”, 267lbs McDonald has the build and physical talent to play the position. He has decent speed and good fluidity for his size. ‘To start with, he’s got the things you can’t coach,’ said former Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt at the Combine. ‘He’s got the kind of size coaches love at his position. He can run and catch. I think he showed he’s a hard worker willing to do whatever it takes to improve as a receiver and blocker. I’m real high on this kid.’
There are no known character issues with McDonald, who said at the Combine: ‘I want teams to know I’m a hard worker and a high-caliber guy on and off the field. I’ll make great decisions and lead by example.’
This is borne out by the Rice head coach David Bailiff, who was full of praise when McDonald returned from injury in November: ‘How many games has Vance taken over where he’s changed the tide in a game through his playmaking ability? He’s a fierce competitor.’
During his junior year McDonald primarily played the slot role in the Owls’ spread offense, and also played some wide receiver. Last season he was utilised more as in-line player next to the tackles (albeit still more as a receiver than as a blocker). Here is how he described the change in role: ‘I thought it kind of hurt me for a while, but, in the end, it was a great experience that helped me. It showed my versatility. I had more responsibility as far as blocking in space. I ran routes from a three-point stance. That season was great for me…I didn’t do a ton of in-line blocking, but I did some.’
At Rice McDonald was also occasionally used to run the ball, recording career stats of 7 rushes for 52 yards.
Release and Route-Running
A sharp route-runner, McDonald has an explosive release and an excellent feel of how to get open. He is adept at achieving separation down the seam and can also work the underneath routes effectively..
McDonald generally shows soft hands, but he lacks consistency. He had more than a few drops at Rice and, as already noted, also dropped some easy balls at the Senior Bowl and at his pro day. The main issue appears to be a tendency to run before the ball is properly secured.
With 34 3/8”arm length and 10 1/8” hands, he has demonstrated the ability to adjust and make tough catches.
Run after the Catch
McDonald shows good patience and quickness after the catch. He has shown fine playmaking ability in clutch situations, such as when he caught a three-yard pass on a 4th and four in the final few minutes of the Kansas game, stopped to allow a defender to run past him, and then sprinted another 10 yards for a big 1st down that helped the Owls to victory.
Having lined up primarily in the slot or in the backfield during his college career, McDonald needs work on his in-line blocking. He possesses the required strength and aggression (finishing his blocks through the whistle), but not yet the technique. He has stated that he played at 265lb last season, and his bench press figures confirm that he certainly has the size and power to potentially be a fine blocker.
McDonald is a likely third round choice, but could possibly sneak into the second round if a team like Atlanta were to envisage him as the eventual replacement for Tony Gonzalez.
The Eagles were reportedly impressed by McDonald’s Senior Bowl performance, However, having just signed James Casey in free agency, it is unlikely that they would be looking for a similar kind of player.
The Raiders have just lost Brandon Myers in free agency and will also be looking for someone who can supply at least some of the 79 catches he made last season. In addition, other teams who are certainly in the market for a tight end as a result of free agency losses are the Browns, Bucs and Redskins (assuming that Fred Davis is not re-signed).
Due to the fact that he played in C-USA, there is less video publicly available for McDonald than many other prospects. However, Draftbreakdown.com has published two game cut-up videos of McDonald’s performances:
LA Tech (2012)
Texas, Baylor & Houston (2011)
Senior Bowl highlights:
Other scouting reports in this tight end series:
All comments/feedback welcome via Twitter @PFCAndrewK