49ers positional analysis: Tight end
Starters at beginning of 2010 season: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker (in a two-tight end set)
Starters at finish of 2010 season: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker (in a two-tight end set)
2010 positional grade: A-minus
Tight ends currently on roster: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Nate Byham, Colin Cloherty
Pending free agents: None
Need to upgrade position before season: Negligible
It's good to be a tight end for the 49ers.
It's good, because new head coach Jim Harbaugh and his team of offensive strategists like to use the tight end, and have made that position an integral part of their passing attack within their version of the West Coast system.
It's good, because the top three tight ends currently on the San Francisco roster have unique skills that can be exploited by that system, and each figures to have a defined role for their talent in San Francisco's 2011 offense.
Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, San Francisco's top two tight ends, have only seen a glimpse so far of Harbaugh's offense, but they already are chomping at the bit.
When asked earlier this week during the team's player-organized workout sessions what he liked about Harbaugh's offense, Davis quickly responded, "Tight-end friendly. I like that. And I'm sure the coaches are going to ad-lib a little bit and throw some more things in there for us, me and Delanie, and just go from there."
Davis wore a smile on his face when he said that. So did Walker when he gave his take on the new offense being brought in by Harbaugh and staff.
"I don't want to give it away," Walker said, "but it seems like it's going to be a lot of two tight-end sets. We haven't even opened up the playbook a lot, but it looks like it will be a lot of two tight-end sets. I'm looking forward to it."
San Francisco's tight ends should be. With top weapons throughout the skill positions at their disposal last year at Stanford, Harbaugh and staff still worked the football to the tight end position, which accounted for 68 receptions for 876 yards and 13 touchdowns during the Cardinal's magnificent 2010 season.
To be sure, none of the tight ends on that Stanford roster are anything like Davis or Walker. And, certainly, none of them could move out space in the running game like Davis or Nate Byham, San Francisco's sixth-round draft pick in 2010 who had a strong rookie season complementing the two athletic tight ends ahead of him on the depth chart.
With those three players all back for the 2011 season, the tight end position rates as one of the strongest areas not only on the San Francisco offense in particular, but on the entire team in general.
Davis established himself at the elite level of NFL tight ends last year with a strong follow-up to his record-smashing breakout season of 2009. Despite San Francisco's offense searching for direction and being in disarray much of the season, Davis led the 49ers in receptions (56), receiving yards (914) and touchdown catches (7) for the second consecutive year.
Davis is the first tight end in franchise history to lead the 49ers in each category two years in a row, and he already is making a statement for himself among the franchise's greatest tight ends after just five NFL seasons. Davis enters 2011 second in franchise history among tight ends in receptions, receiving yards and TD receptions.
He clearly established himself last year as San Francisco's top target and most productive threat in the passing game. San Francisco quarterbacks produced a 113.8 passer rating when throwing to Davis in 2010. Alex Smith, the team's primary starter, had a gaudy 124.0 rating when throwing to Davis, compared to 72.6 when throwing to all other targets.
Davis was named a first alternate to the Pro Bowl team last season after starting for the NFC in that game the season before. Davis' 20 TD receptions are the most by a NFL tight end over the past two seasons, and the second-most by any player in the league. The 49ers rewarded Davis for his excellence with a six-year, $42.705 million contract that will keep him in San Francisco through the 2015 season.
Davis' outstanding 16.3-yard average per catch led the team and was a career high, giving the 49ers a deep-threat dimension at tight end that most other NFL teams can't match. He's also an outstanding blocker, both in the run game and pass protection, giving the 49ers one of the NFL's most complete and dangerous starting tight ends.
Walker, too, had a quality season in 2010, starting eight games and setting career highs in receptions (29) and receiving yards (331), giving San Francisco an explosive one-two punch at the position. San Francisco quarterbacks had a solid 86.4 passer rating when targeting Walker, and he caught 64.4 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2010, the highest percentage of any player on the team.
Byham also contributed as a productive member of the tight end group, starting three games in two-tight end formations as a rookie. The bruising 265-pounder was used mostly for his blocking prowess, but also showed he could contribute as a receiver with five catches.
The 49ers figure to use all three players this season as integral parts of their new offense. They also have a fourth tight end, young Colin Cloherty, who worked his way up from the practice squad last year to finish the season on the 53-man roster, seeing playing time in San Francisco's final two games.
The 49ers are well stocked at this position, which is unlikely to see much change going forward into the 2011 season. The only change might be the team getting the tight ends even more involved in the offense, which is saying something considering the big part they played in the attack in 2010.
As the guys now at the position for San Francisco would likely tell you, it's good to be a tight end these days for the 49ers.
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