Vance McDonald Is This Year's Breakout Tight End
Okay, I have something I have to admit: I am a huge Pokemon nerd and have been for about 15 years. I've collected cards, watched the show and movies, and spent hundreds of hours playing the games. Admittedly, I don't indulge in my nerdy obsession as much these days, but I still keep up to date with the franchise as it develops.
Why am I telling you this now? Because with the emergence of Pokemon Go, it's no longer frowned upon to be an adult who's into Pokemon. You can't judge me when I saw you nearly wreck your car as you tried to catch a Pidgey last week.
Alright, now that I have that off my chest, I have another somewhat embarrassing confession: I am in love with Vance McDonald in fantasy football this season.
Yes, the Vance McDonald who has a career 40 catches, 475 yards, and 3 touchdowns in three seasons and is being drafted as the 30th tight end off the board, according to FantasyFootballCalculator.com's average draft position (ADP) data.
His ADP is one of the primary reasons I get excited whenever I think about McDonald this season -- the others being the potential for team names with horrible McDonald puns and, of course, his flowing golden locks.
In all seriousness, McDonald's current ADP is pretty absurd considering his potential volume this season. Enough talk about Pokemon and men's hair -- time to dig in.
Math Is Fun
In 2015, San Francisco (that's fun to say) dropped back to pass 579 times, which ranked 22nd in the NFL. They attempted 526 passes on the year. Of those 526 passes, 171 of them went to players who are no longer with the team, leaving a 32.5 percent market share unaccounted for heading into 2016.
This offseason, the 49ers have only brought in two pass catchers -- Eric Rogers from the Canadian Football League, and rookie Aaron Burbridge with the 38th pick in the sixth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Neither should be expected to demand targets in 2016. Far and away the most notable acquisition for San Francisco's passing game was bringing in Chip Kelly to be the head coach.
Say what you want about Chip Kelly, but his system has led to big passing seasons with the likes of Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford at the helm. More specifically, he's had very high drop back totals even with subpar quarterbacking, which is encouraging when projecting the outlook of San Francisco's passing volume in 2016.
In his three years as Philadelphia's head coach, Kelly's teams averaged 622.3 drop backs. For a more accurate look at how Kelly's offense runs in a negative game script (they were 7-9 last season as opposed to 10-6 in both 2013 and 14), the Eagles dropped back to throw 660 times last year -- the seventh-most in the NFL and 81 more times than the 49ers. Considering the 49ers' projected win total for 2016 is just five games (second-lowest in the NFL), it's fair to assume they will be passing quite a bit while playing from behind.
Based on the numbers we just examined, we can safely project San Fran for 625 drop backs in 2016. If 94 percent (league average) of those drop backs result in pass attempts and not sacks, a reasonable pass attempt expectation for them would be 588. If we take the 32.5 percent market share left unaccounted for after losing Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, among others, from the 588 attempt projection, that leaves 191 open targets for the current members of San Fran's depleted depth chart.
In Kelly's three years in Philly, tight ends accounted for 134.7 targets per season, or a 23.4 percent market share of the Chip Kelly offense. We really saw Kelly use his tight end heavily last season -- when Zach Ertz was targeted 112 times (sixth-most among tight ends in 2015), accounting for 18.1 percent of Philly's market share himself, which was the eighth-highest among tight ends in 2015.
Vance McDonald, the Target Monster
With San Francisco's depth chart in a state of disarray, I'm not going to sit here and pretend as if I have an accurate projectable target total for McDonald in 2016. I don't know how Kelly will choose to use his weapons. What I do know is that there are a boatload of targets available for the taking in San Francisco, and Chip Kelly has shown that he likes to use his tight ends.
At almost any position in fantasy football, production is often a product of volume rather than talent. Every year there are tight ends who are less talented than the Rob Gronkowskis and Jordan Reeds of the world, but end up with more targets because their team has little or no other reliable pass catchers.
Take last season for example. Delanie Walker and Gary Barnidge -- clearly not the two-most talented tight ends in the league -- led all tight ends in targets. Benjamin Watson ranked seventh ahead of more athletic specimens like Travis Kelce and Tyler Eifert.
Sometimes you don't have to be the best looking one at the bar, but rather the only one at the bar.
So, with no real competition for targets other than Torrey Smith in an offense that should throw quite frequently, is it out of the question that McDonald could be this season's Walker or Watson?
With 36.8 percent of San Fran's 2015 red zone targets gone, could he be this year's Barnidge and lead all tight ends in targets within the 10-yard line? That might sound crazy, but you would have said the same thing about Barnidge at this time last year.
To be objective, I'd be amiss if I didn't acknowledge the fact that a boatload of red zone targets in this offense won't necessarily equate to a boatload of touchdowns. Our projections have Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert combining for just 15.5 passing touchdowns in 2016. Taking a look at last season's tight ends, McDonald could realistically account for over 35 percent of San Fran's aerial touchdowns, though. Last year, Tyler Eifert, Jordan Reed, Gary Barnidge, and Kyle Rudolph all caught over 35 percent of their team's receiving touchdowns.
McDonald's Value Meal
I'm so sorry for the subhead -- I had to get one bad pun in.
Even if you think I'm being overly optimistic in projecting McDonald's potential workload this season, it doesn't really cost you anything to take a chance on him where he is being drafted. If he's still going 199th overall by the time draft season rolls around, there's a pretty good chance he doesn't get picked in casual leagues anyway.
So, with almost no risk involved, why not take a shot on McDonald potentially becoming a target monster in Chip Kelly's offense? The news from Niners camp this offseason has been nothing but positive so far. Draft and stash him early so you don't have to try to beat the rush if he bursts onto the scene like Barnidge did in Week 3 last year.