Buying Vance McDonald: The Year Seven Breakout

If you’re reading this, you likely play in dynasty leagues. If that’s the case, then you’ve heard that Vance McDonald was going to “break out” this year going on the last four or so seasons. The reason you keep hearing it is that it’s true. And 2019 is the year McDonald finally puts it all together and finishes as a top seven tight end.

The Rice Owls were hardly a prolific offense during McDonald’s time there, but he had a relatively impressive college career with a 26.6% (80th percentile) Dominator Rating per Player Profiler and led the team in receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns in his junior season. At 6’4″ and 260+ pounds McDonald is also an impressive athlete boasting a 129.6 SPARQ-X score, which is in the 94th percentile. His biggest attribute (outside of his huge frame) was his 4.69 40-yard dash speed. The San Francisco 49ers were enamored enough with his college production and athleticism that they traded up in the second round to select him in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Slow Start

One minor issue with the landing spot is that the tight end position for the 49ers was already being manned by, and in his prime, Vernon Davis. Davis had one of his best seasons in 2013, with 52 receptions for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns, finishing as the TE3 for the season in fantasy and being named to the Pro Bowl. McDonald saw action in 15 games and started four games. He finished the season with eight receptions on 19 targets. While the sample size was small, his 42.1% catch rate was an omen of things to come.

The 2014 season wasn’t good for San Francisco in general and McDonald specifically. McDonald missed eight games and finished the season with just two receptions. While the 2014 season was not good, it paled in comparison the 2015 season. In Jim Tomsula’s first and last full season as an NFL head coach, the 49ers finished 5-11, benched Colin Kaepernick for Blaine Gabbert and traded Vernon Davis in-season to the Denver Broncos. But the 2015 season did give us our first (small) glimpse of McDonald’s potential.

Another theme emerged as well: Mcdonald’s continued inability to play all 16 games. For the third time in three seasons, McDonald played less than a full 16 game slate. He missed one game in his rookie season, eight games in 2014 season and, then two more games in 2015.

False Start

Entering his fourth season, at a position that is notorious for the amount of time it takes for a prospect to develop, McDonald was on the radar as a buy-low target in 2016. After a slow start to the season due to injury (again) and inefficiency (53.3% catch rate), he had a nice four-week stretch where he averaged 3.5 catches, 60 yards and 0.50 touchdowns per game from weeks 9 through 12. The injury bug hit yet again and his season ended after Week 14. McDonald’s career after four seasons had now fallen into a familiar pattern, stretches where he showed he could be a tight end one interrupted by dropped passes and injury. After drafting George Kittle in the fifth round of the NFL draft, the 49ers decided to move on from McDonald trading him to the Steelers.

Stutter Step  

With a new home in a prolific offense, McDonald was again touted as a buy-low target. His four week run from the previous season showed his potential if he could just stay healthy and catch a few more of his targets. But 2017 was more of the same; he missed seven games and dropped passes when he played. With McDonald unable to get on the field, Jesse James had himself a decent season scoring seven fantasy points per game on 64 targets and, more importantly, securing an 85.7% snap share. You would have been forgiven if you gave up on McDonald. Based on his TE25 June 2018 ADP, it’s safe to assume most dynasty owners did.

McDonald, as was his habit, missed the first game of the 2018 season. That is the only thing 2018 had in common with his previous years. After a quiet Week 2 debut, McDonald loudly announced his presence by obliterating Chris Conte’s soul on this 75-yard touchdown catch and run.

That was his first of five TE1 weeks on the season, finishing as a top nine TE each of those weeks. McDonald added two more weeks where he finished just outside of TE1 weeks finishing as the TE14. He finished 2018 as the TE11 in overall scoring with 126.1 fantasy points and as the TE14 with 9.0 points per game through Week 16. McDonald set career highs in targets, receptions, yards and tied his career high in touchdowns with four. He also started a career-high 14 games, while tying his career high in games played with 15. Not only healthy McDonald also set a career high in catch rate at 68.5% which ranked 16th at the tight end position.

The Year Seven Breakout

While 2018 was the first season that owning McDonald paid off, he could be primed for an even better season next year. If you like the “playing for a contract” narrative, 2019 is the last year of McDonald’s contract where the cap savings gained by cutting him would be minimal. After the 2019 season, the Steelers can save $5.67 million by releasing him compared to the $3.6 million they would save if they cut him today.

There is also a good chance that a significant amount of targets will be available in 2019. Antonio Brown will be traded at some point and Jesse James is likely to depart via free agency. Those two saw 207 targets last year, Brown accounting for the majority. JuJu Smith-Schuster will see a bump in targets but his 166 targets in 2018 ranked seventh in the NFL, so it’s unlikely he’ll see a huge increase. James Washington will presumably see his role increase with Brown’s departure, while James Conner and Jaylen Samuels could see their usage in the passing game increase too.

Any way you divvy up the targets, McDonald is sure to see an increase from the 4.9 targets per game he averaged in 2018. He also is due for some positive regression after scoring four touchdowns last year. The Steelers are going to need someone the help replace Brown’s league-leading fifteen receiving touchdowns.

Best of all McDonald is dirt cheap to acquire. In FantasyPros January 2019 Dynasty Trade Value chart his trade value is 1. That’s the lowest possible value a player can earn. A rookie third-round draft pick currently holds more value than McDonald. He’s the 22nd tight end off the board in DLFs February ADP and the 184th player overall, making him a 15th round startup pick. If you don’t want the cost of a top 5 tight end, McDonald is, yet again, a great buy low candidate. The difference is this time he’s going to hit.

Thanks for reading. If you ever want to talk fantasy you can find me on Twitter @DFF_Shane. And subscribe to the DynastyTradesHQ podcast today if you’re looking for an entertaining and informative fantasy football podcast. 


FSWA member, Writer, editor, VP of Content, hypeman for DFF. Married to my best friend and the hottest MILF I've ever seen. Proud father of two stunningly handsome boys(they look like me). Fantasy football addict and dynasty degenerate now in 29 dyno leagues. I love talking about dynasty, writing about dynasty, listening to dynasty podcasts, being on dynasty podcasts, dreaming about dynasty, scheming about dynasty leagues................

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