San Francisco 49ers 2016 Position Breakdown: Looking at the Tight End Position
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers have a lot of depth at tight end to start 2016 but no real established No. 1 option. With head coach Chip Kelly’s tendency to utilize tight ends in his offense, how will this group come together leading up to the regular season? Niner Noise takes a look at this position in our offseason positional breakdown.
A year or two ago, the San Francisco 49ers tight end position would largely focus on veteran TE Vernon Davis and his supporting cast.
Davis is no longer the bona fide force he once was and now finds himself a member of the Washington Redskins after the 49ers traded Davis last year to the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos, who elected not to re-sign him.
But some questions remain. First, will fellow tight end Vance McDonald ever emerge as a legitimate playmaking threat? And how might other TEs like Garrett Celek, Blake Bell and Busta Anderson contribute to San Francisco’s offense?
We already know head coach Chip Kelly loves to utilize tight ends in his offense. So this could be a boost to this unit, but it also might be a hindrance if this crop is unable to produce at a satisfactory level.
So in this installment of Niner Noise’s offseason position breakdown, we’ll take a look at San Francisco’s crop of tight ends and try to gauge what to look for in 2016.
Davis’ struggles emanating from his 2014 efforts carried into last year, and the veteran posted a mere 18 catches for 194 yards before being dealt to the Broncos in advance of the trading deadline.
This opened up the door for backup tight ends like McDonald and Celek who, despite injuries and miscues here and there, benefited from Davis’ absence.
Celek appeared to be the clear favorite to take over the No. 1 spot. Before a season-ending injury, Celek managed 19 catches for 186 yards and three touchdowns. And McDonald also had a nice offensive streak with 326 receiving yards and three touchdowns of his own.
Yet McDonald’s hands, always a question since he was drafted in Round 2 back in 2013, continued to plague him.
Yes, McDonald’s blocking abilities can’t be overlooked — he posted a plus-1.5 pass-blocking grade last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). But it’s pretty clear the Niners aren’t going to get a dynamic and versatile H-back-type of player at this point in his career.
As an experiment, the 49ers drafted former Oklahoma quarterback-turned-tight end Blake Bell in Round 4.
Bell, while raw, could still be a major factor in San Francisco’s offense moving forward.
2016 49ers Tight Ends
San Francisco’s crop of tight ends looks a lot like it did last season after the Davis trade. Here’s a breakdown of this unit, courtesy of the team’s website:
- Busta Anderson
- Blake Bell
- Garrett Celek
- Je’Ron Hamm
- Vance McDonald
- Kyle Nelson (long-snapper)
Not on this list are fullback Bruce Miller and undrafted free agent wide receiver Devon Cajuste. Kelly isn’t known for using fullbacks on offense, and the 49ers are looking to move the standout fullback to tight end, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
Additionally, the 49ers signed Celek to a four-year, $10.2 million extension during the offseason, which suggests the team has planned a bigger role for him in the future.
What to Watch for 2016
Celek is likely the favorite to land the No. 1 tight end spot on the 53-man roster this season. Yet it will be interesting to see how the 49ers work Bell and Busta Anderson into the equation.
Anderson didn’t see the field during his rookie campaign last year.
2016 may also be a make-or-break season for McDonald. The second-round pick hasn’t performed up to standards and was one of the worst-ranked tight ends, in terms of dropped passes, according to PFF (h/t Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News).
An interesting player to watch here is Cajuste. The former Stanford wide receiver may have some difficulty working his way into the Niners depth chart at this particular position, but his 6’4″, 227-pound frame makes him an ideal candidate to be a red-zone specialist for San Francisco’s offense.
It’s an aspect which will need to improve in 2016. The 49ers scored touchdowns on a mere 43.59 percent of red-zone visits last season, which was next to last just above the Cleveland Browns.
And it’s hard to doubt Cajuste’s hands.
What’s nice here is the 49ers have some likable and promising options to round out the tight end position. And the depth should create some amicable competition to push the best players to the top of the roster.
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The player who should be pushed the most is McDonald because, well, he has the most to lose and had the highest expectations out of this bunch since being drafted.
Fortunately, the 49ers aren’t exactly in a precarious position with McDonald. There are other options here and all of them could wind up being focal points in Kelly’s offense.
We didn’t mention much of Miller either. As of now, Miller is one of the best fullbacks in the league, so keep an eye on his adjustments this offseason if the 49ers continue to work him in with this group. At worst, he provides another legitimate blocking and receiving option at this position.
Stay tuned for our ongoing assessments for each Niners position this offseason.
Next: Looking at 49ers Linebackers in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.