With the 90-man roster set and training camp slated to begin at the end of July, it's time we take a look at the looming positional battles. We'll continue our training camp preview series with a look at the 49ers' tight ends and what to expect in 2014.
Tight ends currently on the 90-man roster:
Cleveland (undrafted free agent)
The 49ers' passing game was at the bottom of the league for most of the season, but still saw a great year from Davis, who finished with 15 touchdown receptions in the regular season and playoffs. His 13 regular-season TDs tied his career high set in 2009.
The problem for San Francisco was that only three players caught touchdown passes on the season. Davis led the way with 13 while Anquan Boldin notched seven and Michael Crabtree finished with one after returning from his Achilles injury. For the offense to take the next step in Colin Kaepernick's third season as starter, they are going to need more production from other pass catchers, which could make 2014 a big season for Vance McDonald.
McDonald played 591 snaps during his rookie season but made just eight catches for 119 yards. And unfortunately for him, his most notable play of the year came Week 10 when he was stripped a long pass by Luke Kuechly late in the loss to the Carolina Panthers after Davis had left the game early with a concussion. Garrett Celek was also lost in that game with a hamstring, forcing the tight-end heavy 49ers to deviate from their game plan against one of the league's best defenses.
Davis was back in the division round game against the Panthers and made a crucial touchdown catch in the back of the end zone at the end of the first half to give San Francisco a 13-10 lead at intermission. The 49ers won that game 23-10 before falling to the Seahawks in the NFC title game.
Overall, it was clear the 49ers struggled to find a replacement for Delanie Walker, who left via free agency last spring. McDonald was taken in the second round of the 2013 draft to be the answer, but he struggled to find his stride in the passing game after being a productive pass catcher at Rice. But he improved drastically as a blocker as the season wore on. If he can improve as a receiver, it would be big for an offense that relied more on two-tight end sets than any in the NFL.
Celek and Carrier played 126 and 42 snaps respectively. Celek had two receptions on the year while Carrier was used in just four games while Celek was injured.
A NEW OFFENSE?: The 49ers will enter 2014 with its deepest receiving corps in years. That's big news for the offense, which could look drastically different than it did last season. The 49ers used two-tight end packages 37 percent of the time in 2013 while the NFL averaged roughly 25 percent. With the additions of a healthy Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington, the offense could have a drastically different look as it hopes to spread defenses out more preventing them from loading the box against the running game. That could mean a lessened role for players like McDonald and Celek.
MCCDONALD'S DEVELOPMENT: As we mentioned, 2014 will be a big year for McDonald. He was forced into a big role on offense as a rookie and showed positive signs in his development as the season went along - especially as a blocker. The 49ers love their multiple-tight end sets, especially in short-yardage situations. They would love for McDonald to become the big, physical pass catcher they drafted him to be.
DAVIS' PLACE IN HISTORY: Vernon Davis enters the season No. 7 on the team's all-time receiving yardage list with 5,201. He's 397 yards behind John Taylor and 701 behind Billy Wilson. That means there's a chance Davis could enter the top five in receiving yards in team history at some point in 2014 with a chance to pass Gene Washington and Dwight Clark in the coming years. Terrell Owens (8,572 yards) and Jerry Rice (19,247 yards, *coughs*) own the top two spots.
LOCKS: Davis, McDonald. These two accounted for 89 percent of the tight ends' snaps in 2013. Barring injury, that shouldn't change. The 49ers are expecting McDonald to take the next step this year and assert himself as the same kind of player Delanie Walker was prior to leaving via free agency.
NOTHING'S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: Garrett Celek has been the team's No. 3 tight end for the last two seasons since joining the team as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State. He's an adequate blocker as a third tight end but doesn't provide much in the passing game. He has six career receptions for 89 yards. Celek could be up against the numbers game more so than the other tight ends in camp if the 49ers elect to keep six receivers on the 53-man roster instead of five.
ON THE BUBBLE: Carrier, Cleveland. Carrier was forced into action in four games late in the regular season as the third tight end when Celek was shelved with a hamstring strain. Carrier and Cleveland are eligible to be on the team's practice squad. Cleveland, a Sacramento native, comes to the 49ers with a chance to overthrow either Carrier or Celek for the No. 3 tight end job. But he enters the offseason program with the least amount of pro experience giving him an uphill battle.
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