49ers season preview positional analysis: TEs

NinersDigest will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, with keys to the season for each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Tight ends

The 49ers are in such good shape at tight end that they only needed to keep two of them on their final roster.

Maybe that's an oversimplification of where the team really stands at the position entering the 2011 season.
Maybe it's not.

With Vernon Davis as the regular starter and Delanie Walker behind him, the 49ers have two game-breaking threats at the position, and they figure to be paired on the field often in Jim Harbaugh's version of the West Coast offense, which likes to feature the tight end and use several two-tight end sets.

And when the 49ers have only their No. 1 tight end on the field, he'll be one of the best in the game. Davis – who led the 49ers in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions last year for the second consecutive season – has established himself as one of the NFL's top all-around performers at the position, and at age 27, his best is still to come.

Keys to the season

Get the ball to Vernon Davis: The 49ers will have several inviting targets on the edges for their passing game this season, but they can't forget about who their No. 1 target it. That still is Davis, who averaged a career-high 16.3 yards per catch on his 56 receptions last year. Davis should see even more single-coverage opportunities as opposing defenses now have to contend with newcomer Braylon Edwards being added to San Francisco's offensive arsenal, and the Niners need to exploit those situations. Davis should be the No. 1 option in the play progression about 10 passing plays each game, and maybe even more.

Don't forget about Delanie Walker: There might be a tendency to overlook Walker in the game plan this year with so many other capable weapons in the passing game, but the 49ers need to remember that Walker is one of them. He has slimmed down from previous seasons to make himself even more of a threat as a receiver, and he'll often be matched with safeties and linebackers who will have a difficult time covering him. Walker will present a matchup nightmare for opponents when he's on the field, and he needs to have a prominent role in the team's personnel packages.

Two tight-end sets: If you consider what Davis and Walker can do as individuals, just think what they can do when they're on the field together. Both players are aware of how Harbaugh's offense has featured the tight end in the past, and both have been chomping at the bit to see the same thing happen with the 49ers.

Make use of others as blockers: While the 49ers want to get Davis and Walker on the field as much as possible, they don't want to wear them out as blockers. Davis is a superb blocker at the position, but since the Niners are carrying only two tight ends to start the season, they might want to let others share in the grunt work. This is where the team can use rookie fullback Bruce Miller in an H-back role and perhaps offensive tackle Alex Boone – or others – as a third blocker to either side of center.

The bottom line

The 49ers have terrific talent here, but the lack of a third tight end to handle blocking duties at the position – a role Nate Byham handled well as a rookie last year and likely would have done the same this season – leaves them light at the position entering the season. As long as it's left to others to handle the dirty work in the trenches that would have gone to Byham this year, Davis and Walker could thrive as one of the top tight end tandems in the league as receiving weapons, but they must not be exposed to overwork for that to happen.

Unit at a glance

Starter for season opener: Vernon Davis
Reserves: Delanie Walker
Key new arrivals: Coach Reggie Davis
Key departures: Colin Cloherty
Tight ends coach: Reggie Davis, first season with 49ers, first year coaching in NFL.

STRENGTHS: An All-Pro-level starter in Vernon Davis, an athletic talent and solid blocker who can do it all at the position and also stretch defenses on passing downs with his speed over the middle. And outstanding complement to Davis in the passing game in Delanie Walker.

WEAKNESSES: There are depth issues here with only two tight ends on the opening-day roster. Walker is not much of a blocker and figures to be used even less in those situations this year after slimming down during the offseason, which may be a key for opposing defenses when he enters the game.

By the numbers

2: Consecutive seasons leading the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by Vernon Davis, who in 2010 became the first tight end in franchise history ever to accomplish the feat.

13: Receptions of more than 25 yards in 2010 by Vernon Davis, which ranked fifth among all NFL players.

16.3: Career-high average yards per reception in 2010 by Vernon Davis, which ranked first among all NFL tight ends.

457: Yards gained after the catch in 2010 by Vernon Davis, which led all NFL tight ends. Davis also led all tight ends in the league with an 8.2 average in yards after the catch.

965: Receiving yards in 2009 by Vernon Davis, the most ever for a tight end in 49ers franchise history. Davis had 914 yards receiving last season, the second-highest total ever for a 49ers tight end.

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