Why the 49ers Tight End Position May Be One of Strength in 2016
By Peter Panacy
The San Francisco 49ers don’t have a lot of proven options at tight end entering 2016. But there is an open possibility this works out to the Niners’ benefit under head coach Chip Kelly and a unique offensive approach.
If the national narrative proves to be true, the San Francisco 49ers won’t get a whole lot of production out of their tight ends in 2016.
According to Gordon McGuinness of Pro Football Focus, the Niners overall receiving corps ranked 31st out of 32 teams.
Sure, this also includes a vastly inexperienced wide receiver group, but the assessment pays close attention to the 49ers tight ends as well.
But what if this crop actually proved to be better than what many are expecting? Is it possible San Francisco’s tight ends actually wind up being a strength for the offense this season instead of just another weakness in a long line of weaknesses?
Let’s go with this route for a moment. But before we do, we have to set up why no one is talking about the 49ers tight ends as being anything worthwhile this season.
To start, let’s quote McGuinness:
"At tight end, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek combined for 512 yards in 2015, but look for that to change if the usage of Brent Celek and Zach Ertz in Kelly’s final season in Philadelphia is anything to go by."
McGuinness is speaking of San Francisco’s likely top-two tight ends entering the season — Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek. Out of the two, McDonald had the better numbers a year ago and posted 30 receptions for 326 yards and three touchdowns. In comparison, Celek had just 19 grabs for 186 yards and three touchdowns.
But Celek’s 2015 campaign was cut short by a season-ending injury.
The big thing to note is the inconsistency with McDonald’s hands. All too often, San Francisco fans have been treated to plays like this one:
While a career-best 2015 campaign could be a good sign for McDonald, a former second-round pick in 2013, the pass-catching abilities leave a lot to be desired.
If we stick to that narrative, and assume McDonald is going to be the starter, this position may be in trouble. But one shouldn’t automatically lock into the notion McDonald will be the No. 1 guy.
San Francisco inked Celek to a four-year, $10.2 million contract extension during the offseason, so it’s pretty automatic the Niners view him as a big part of their upcoming plans. And the increase in role last year, following the midseason trade of former 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, could be a sign of things to come.
But how will head coach Chip Kelly utilize guys like Celek and/or McDonald? That’s the main question, and it should be a prime area of focus.
If we take a look at 2014, Kelly’s best offensive year as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, we can get a better idea, as McGuinness suggested. Eagles tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz combined for 1,042 receiving yards on 90 receptions along with four touchdowns.
Looking at Football Outsiders‘ defensive yards over replacement (DYAR) from the same year, we learn Ertz ended up being the No. 8-ranked tight end in the NFL out of 50 listed. Ertz posted a plus-127 DYAR mark. In comparison, Davis ranked No. 45 with a minus-66 DYAR.
Personnel for the 49ers will be different though, and we shouldn’t automatically assume Garrett Celek or McDonald will be anything close to what Ertz was under Kelly.
Still, let’s consider a few football 101 theories here.
A tight end is a quarterback’s best friend in the red zone. The big-bodied, physical nature of most TEs means a quarterback has a likable option within opponents’ 20-yard lines. Six-combined touchdowns between Celek and McDonald, on an anemic 49ers offense last year, suggests the Niners are already prepared to utilize these weapons when necessary.
All six of these came in the red zone, by the way.
Yet San Francisco’s tight ends will have to do more than just emerge as possible red-zone threats. Again, a basic understanding of football suggests speedy wide receivers (insert wideouts Torrey Smith and Bruce Ellington here) open up areas underneath deep routes.
Safeties and linebackers are typically tasked with covering tight ends, so creating mismatches is a major factor.
The 49ers have two other tight ends — well, three — who are capable of creating such mismatches: Bruce Miller, Blake Bell and rookie Devon Cajuste.
Cajuste, a likely conversion from wide receiver, may not make the 53-man roster. But if he does, there’s a good chance he emerges as a “hidden gem,” as our friends over at NFL Mocks suggested after the 49ers signed him.
Influencing a potential area of strength? Perhaps.
But more should be expected out of Bell and Miller. Bell, the second-year pro who was once a three-year quarterback at Oklahoma before his position change, is raw. The 49ers experimented with him a bit last year — 15 catches on 25 targets — but, possibly, 2016 is the year in which Bell turns a very big page.
And we can’t forget Miller.
The former fullback wouldn’t have had a role at this position in Kelly’s offense. He doesn’t utilize them. So switching to tight end was only necessary.
Miller fills an H-back role of sorts. He’s the type of player capable of lining up anywhere on the field and, judging by his career-76 receptions (25 of which came in 2013) and 734 yards, the 49ers should have zero problems utilizing him in a pass-catching role.
He’s more than capable of being a red-zone threat, as seen here:
A lost factor in all this is how San Francisco’s quarterback reads and reacts to coverage and, more specifically, how the tight ends get involved.
We can hearken back to former 49ers, and current Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith fell in love with his tight ends over the past few seasons, and that paints a pretty good picture. Assuming Blaine Gabbert gets the starting QB job this year, we might expect more of the same.
Take this stat for example — Gabbert threw for an average of 2.1 yards short of the first-down marker on third downs last season, per Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
Whether or not you believe Gabbert should get the call to start in 2016 is a different question. But if he does, look for him to trust his tight ends in these situations. And the tight ends will be called upon to make up the difference with physicality and matchups rather than sheer speed or route-running capabilities.
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OK, so we shouldn’t assume the 49ers tight end crop will suddenly emerge as one of the best offensive units within the NFL this season.
An outside chance? Sure. Anything has a remote chance. But we shouldn’t automatically write off this group either.
There are more than a handful of indications San Francisco’s tight ends will be a bit better under Kelly this season. There are plenty of deficiencies and question marks, and we can’t argue against that.
But there is a pretty good possibility the 49ers tight ends wind up being, you know, pretty decent this season too.
Next: Why 49ers TE Garrett Celek Will Break Out in 2016
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.