A Look Back at 2012
The 49ers' tight ends have played a significant role in the offense dating back to 2006 when Vernon Davis was drafted No. 6 overall. Davis was a favorite of Alex Smith and led San Francisco in receptions in 2009 and 2010 before making his memorable touchdown catch with 14 seconds remaining to beat the Saints 36-32 in 2011's divisional round of the playoffs. Davis' best season came in 2009 when he caught 13 touchdown passes and averaged 60 receiving yards per game.
The Maryland alum had five touchdown catches in the regular season last year – all coming before week 11. From then on, he made just six receptions for 61 yards leaving some to believe he became a forgotten player when Colin Kaepernick took the reigns of the team's offense. But that notion was put to rest in the postseason when Davis reclaimed his pivotal role in the offense. He combined to make 12 catches for 254 yards (21.2 yards per catch) and had a key touchdown in the 28-24 win over Atlanta in the NFC title game. The emergence of Michael Crabtree certainly helped as defenses realized they couldn't key only on Davis, especially in third down situations.
Delanie Walker played all over the field and was one of the 49ers' most versatile offensive weapons. Walker played a classic H-back despite being listed as a tight end. His reception numbers didn't jump off the stat sheet (27 receptions, 344 yards and three TDs), but Walker rated as one of the best blocking tight in the league. His above-average speed also created mismatches with linebackers in the passing game and he was even called on to run reverses. At times Walker was an explosive second tight end, but in 2012 the 49ers completed just 56.8 percent of passes thrown in his direction as he struggled to reel in catchable balls at times.
Walker's versatility also translated to special teams, where he helped the return unit with his blocking ability. But in coverage situations, Walker was hit or miss, literally. His most notable whiff on a tackle came on Jacoby Jones' kickoff return for a score to open the third quarter of the Super Bowl, giving the Ravens a 22-point lead en route to the 34-31 victory.
Rookie Garrett Celek was the team's primary third tight and was used mostly for blocking purposes in his rookie season after coming in as an undrafted player from Michigan State. He appeared in 13 games and registered four receptions for 51 without scoring. Defensive lineman Demarcus Dobbs spent time learning tight end in training camp, but didn't contribute in that role once the regular season came around.
Comings and Goings
While Walker was a key player in the 49ers' offense, the team didn't believe he was worth re-signing at the market rate. The free agent left and joined the Tennessee Titans signing a four-year deal worth $17.5 million to become the team's new tight end. Considering Davis had signed a six-year $42.7 million deal in 2010, San Francisco didn't want $10 million in cap dollars wrapped up in two tight ends going forward.
After deeming Walker replaceable, the 49ers drafted Vance McDonald of Rice in the second round (No. 55 overall). Possessing great size at 6'4" and 267 pounds, McDonald comes to the NFL having been his team's primary receiver in college, projecting him as a good compliment to Davis.
McDonald didn't do much blocking in school, however, but he accumulated 119 catches, 1,504 receiving yards and 15 scores in his four seasons for the Owls. He bench pressed 225 pounds 31 times at the combine, which should mean the foundation is there to become a solid blocker and fill the void left by Walker.
The 49ers also brought in undrafted rookie MarQueis Gray who will compete with Celek for the job as the team's third tight end. The former quarterback at Minnesota played receiver his sophomore and senior seasons before moving back under center as a junior for the Golden Gophers.
In 2011 as a junior, Gray rushed for 966 yards on 199 attempts and six scores. He also completed 108 of 213 throws for 1,495 yards, eight touchdown passes and had a QB rating of 114.5.
At 6'4" and 250 pounds, Gray has very good size and athleticism and could be a training camp wildcard if he proves he can make plays while excelling as a blocker. Gray's physicality stood out during OTAs but he is still far from polished at the position.
Players in Camp
Garrett Celek (6'5", 252 pounds) second season, Michigan State
Vernon Davis (6'3", 250) eighth season, Maryland
MarQueis Gray (6'4", 250) first season, Minnesota
Vance McDonald (6'4", 267) first season, Rice
Locks to Make the Roster
Barring any catastrophic events in training camp, Davis and McDonald are assured to make the team. Davis remains one of the most dangerous tight ends in the game given his speed and ability to create mismatches for opposing defenses.
McDonald has been a quick study in the team's offseason program and has earned praise from his coaching staff. Head coach Jim Harbaugh went ahead and gave McDonald the No. 89 because the rookie reminds him Mike Ditka. Given his unique combination of size, speed and pass catching ability, McDonald should step into Walker's former role right away. And because of his height, McDonald represents a red zone threat that could be an upgrade over Walker.
Battling for a Spot
Although Celek is the incumbent, his spot in the roster is far from assured. He will be in competition with Gray for the team's third tight end position that was mostly used for blocking in 2012. Gray might not be the blocker Celek is initially, but he's more athletic and versatile which lends itself to the H-back position the 49ers are so keen on. And because he has quarterback's background, you never know what coordinator Greg Roman could draw up.
If the coaching staff doesn't think Gray can be productive on game days but wants to keep him around to work on his development, he could earn a spot on the practice squad.