The San Francisco 49ers finally invested some of their massive amounts of saved up cap space by signing tight end Vance McDonald to a 5-year, $35 million extension.
A poor quality team spending money on talent is good! Overpaying is bad, however. So where did the 49ers land on this signing? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
Comparing players is sometimes a lessen in futility. Different schemes for different teams can dictate a player’s level of production, as can the quality of personnel surrounding the player. But let’s use another tight end on a run-heavy team, with a poor receiving corp, that isn’t necessarily in the top of the NFL echelon.
Player A currently has 49 receptions for 657 yards and six touchdowns on the year. He’s not just a receiving tight end either, as he can hold his own as a run blocker as well. His current salary is just $2.7 million in base, but counts as $6.75 million in dead cap space.
Player B, on the other hand, has 64 receptions for 866 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a young receiving tight end who is still rounding into form after a rough start to a career. His contract will average $7 million dollars.
Now at first glance, you might say that Player B is worth the extra $250,000 for more yards and an extra touchdown. The only problem is that Player B took four years to get the numbers that Player A is putting up in just one season.
The other problem is that Player B is Vance McDonald, whom the 49ers have now locked up as their tight end of the future. And to rub salt in the wound, Player A is Titans’ tight end Delanie Walker, whom the 49ers let walk for some inexplicable reason, while drafting McDonald to take his place.
The 49ers now have a more expensive, less productive, tight end than most of the league, and they have no one to blame but themselves.
Right now, that would put this in the overpay category, which is bad. But there’s more to it than that.
Yes, the 49ers overpaid McDonald. But that’s what bad teams have to do. Good players don’t want to go to bad teams, and if they do, they want to be paid a ton of money to do so. The 49ers paying McDonald a lot of money to stick around saved them from paying someone better even more money to start new in Santa Clara.
McDonald was a free-agent to-be next year, and while he may not be in the league’s top-tier of tight ends, the choices behind him were slim. Garrett Celek has had some poor drops and ball-security issues this year, and Blake Bell is huge, but not a productive receiver.
If the 49ers had let McDonald walk, and they didn’t want to entice a free agent with a ton of cash, they would likely have had to draft a rookie tight end whom they would hope could come in and produce immediately.
That takes a high draft pick, and with as many roster holes as the 49ers have, they are better suited spending those elsewhere in order to fill their many other needs.
You also can’t say that McDonald — despite his drops — hasn’t been a security blanket for the 49ers’ quarterbacks this year. Regardless of who is under center, both Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick have looked often to McDonald in the passing game.
This season, McDonald leads the team in touchdowns and yards per reception, is second in receiving yards and third in receptions.
He may also be a slow bloomer, but he’s shown improvement each year since becoming a full-time starter. Last year, he finished the season with 326 yards and three touchdowns, numbers he’s already eclipsed with four games left to go in the season.
The 49ers’ choice to invest $7 million annually in McDonald was probably a mixture of being in between a rock-and-a-hard-place in terms of retaining talent, and an investment in McDonald’s proven growth over the past few seasons.
I still cringe every time a ball bounces off his open hands. Sometimes I feel myself pre-loading a cringe when the ball is headed his way. But every now and then he’ll do something great too, like a 75-yard touchdown catch or planting Richard Sherman on his behind.
It wasn’t the best deal that’s ever been made, but the team still got a growing talent in return, and the ability to focus on other areas of needs in th offseason.
Lets not call it the 49ers’ second win of the season, but I don’t think they took another loss on this either.
Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.