Breaking Down San Francisco 49ers Tight End Position in Advance of 2016 Season
By Peter Panacy
Niner Noise takes a look at the San Francisco 49ers tight end position as training camp and the preseason approach. How will TEs like Garrett Celek, Vance McDonald, Blake Bell and Bruce Miller fit into the picture for the 2016 NFL season?
For more than just a handful of years, the San Francisco 49ers tight end position was defined with Vernon Davis as the starter and a number of other guys backing him up in various roles.
But Davis was traded to the Denver Broncos in the middle of last season, which opened up the door for other players to step into a more prominent role. With the 2016 season now on the horizon, how does this position shape up for a Niners team going through a major overhaul?
Davis’ trade gave us a bit of a glimpse into what may be expected this upcoming season.
Tight ends Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald each saw increased roles, and their production also saw a bit of a boost as well.
And there are other members of the 49ers who could make an impact within this group.
The offseason hiring of head coach Chip Kelly also means San Francisco should receive a bit of a boost on the offensive side of the ball. This likely means a better utilization of tight ends, especially in the red zone, and one might look for the stat lines to increase.
We also can’t overlook the transition of former 49ers fullback Bruce Miller to this squad either.
Let’s start with listing each Niners tight end currently on the team’s 90-man offseason roster:
- Busta Anderson
- Blake Bell
- Garrett Celek
- Je’Ron Hamm
- Vance McDonald
- Bruce Miller
- Kyle Nelson (LS)
Presumably, the 49ers will open up 2016 with either Celek or McDonald as the No. 1 guy on the depth chart.
Celek signed a four-year, $10.2 million contract extension during the offseason, which is a good indication the Niners want to make him a significant part of their plans in upcoming years.
The details of the contract are laid out below:
The 28-year-old Celek saw his best season in 2015 and posted a career-high 19 receptions for 186 yards and three touchdowns before being lost to a season-ending injury in Week 12.
McDonald also had career-best numbers last year. His stat line consisted of 30 catches for 326 yards and three touchdowns.
But McDonald, a second-round pick of the 49ers in 2013, hasn’t exactly been known as someone who could live up to his expectation level. Dropped passes, inconsistent play and a number of injuries have put the former Rice standout onto shaky ground this season.
And who could forget plays like this:
Maybe McDonald is simply a late bloomer. Or he truly could be a bust. Whatever the case may be, 2016 will tell us a lot about his future.
On the polar opposite of the spectrum is Miller.
Kelly’s offenses typically don’t utilize fullbacks, so Miller’s transition to tight end makes sense. Regardless of the adjustment, Miller has already proven himself as a pass-catching option in San Francisco’s offense.
Just take a look at the breakdown of a 2014 touchdown against the Oakland Raiders:
Miller may wind up filling a sort of H-back role in San Francisco’s offense, and his versatility should go a long way in helping the Niners overcome some of the red-zone woes seen in recent seasons.
And yet the 49ers still have a plethora of questions yet to be answered.
Should any one of the aforementioned tight ends struggle, or another depth TE stand out during camp, San Francisco will be looking closely at guys like Blake Bell or, potentially, Busta Anderson.
Bell — a former Oklahoma quarterback with just one collegiate year of tight end experience — was picked up by the Niners in Round 4 of the 2015 NFL Draft. He’s raw, but the 49ers like what they see in his potential.
Anderson may have a longer way to go after not seeing the field his rookie season a year ago, but he’s still an interesting commodity to watch.
Not lost in the mix is former Stanford wide receiver and undrafted free-agent pickup Devon Cajuste.
Cajuste, at 6-foot-4 and 227 pounds, looks more like a tight end than a prototypical wideout. So it would make perfect sense for the 49ers to try and transition him into more of a receiving-TE role if he makes the roster.
He should. Given Cajuste’s excellent hands — take a look below — it would be hard for Kelly and Co. to leave him off the roster.
Leaving long-snapper Kyle Nelson off the list, it will be interesting to see how this current crop of tight ends shapes up on the 53-man roster.
Celek will make the cut. Bell probably will too. And Miller is a shoo-in, based on what the offensive coaching staff already knows about his production level. So there are three roster spots gone. McDonald will probably make the cut — he has had strong preseason efforts before — but it might come at the expense of Cajuste and the rest of San Francisco’s tight ends.
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The lack of a fullback on Kelly’s roster does keep an additional spot open, so that’s a bonus. But how this group rounds out is a pretty big question as training camp approaches.
And it’s a fluid situation too.
One has to realize McDonald hasn’t panned out thus far. And if there was a critical roster decision boiling down to McDonald or Cajuste, the latter should probably get the call.
So let’s keep posted and watch how this unit comes together during camp and the preseason.
Hopefully the results will be able to positively impact what happens on the field in 2016.
Next: Breaking Down 49ers Offensive Line in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.