SANTA CLARA, Calif. - In former offensive coordinator Greg Roman's offense, tight ends played a critical role during the San Francisco 49ers' run to three straight conference title games. So it wasn't a surprise the offense struggled in 2014 when Roman's tight ends collectively had their worst season since he became coordinator in 2011.
At the head of the problem was former Pro-Bowler Vernon Davis, who backed up an outstanding 13-touchdown campaign in 2013 with arguably the worst season of his nine-year career. He posted a career-low 245 receiving yards with just two touchdowns, and he didn't contribute much in the running game, either. Davis was a shell of his former self when it came to blocking for Frank Gore and company.
Davis' versatility was important previously for the 49ers, who knew they could run the ball to his side of the formation because of his ability to block. At the same time, Davis had been San Francisco's most explosive offensive player, with the speed to get behind defensive backs, complementing the running game perfectly as a dangerous play-action threat.
But an early-season ankle injury - and later a back issue - hampered Davis significantly, and he wasn't able to get back to the physical form that made him a valuable piece to Roman's run-heavy/take-the-top-off attack.
Vance McDonald, a second-round pick in 2013, has not lived up to his draft status, nor has he shown glimpses of becoming a reliable target in the passing game. He was brought in after the 49ers lost another versatile piece, Delanie Walker, to free agency. Walker and Davis had similar traits, with the speed of receivers paired with the ability to block. But to this point, McDonald has been unable to replicate Walker's production in the passing game.
The former Rice Owl has just 10 catches for 149 yards with no touchdowns in his two seasons with San Francisco. McDonald's primary role has been as a blocker, which is a disappointment, and leaves the 49ers wondering if he will ever become Davis' eventual replacement as he enters the final year of his contract. McDonald missed the final six games of 2014 when a back injury landed him on injured reserve. He required back surgery to repair disk issue in the offseason.
The 49ers had two more tight ends that saw targets in the passing game in 2014: Derek Carrier (9 catches, 105 yards) and Garrett Celek (2 catches, 53 yards). Both finished the season on injured reserve, with McDonald, with foot and ankle injuries, respectively. Celek didn't play his first game until Nov. 27's loss to the Seahawks after starting the year on the physically-unable to perform list stemming from back surgery the previous summer.
Carrier, a former receiver at Beloit College, signed a two-year contract extension through 2017 this spring. The team is hoping to cash in on his upside as a pass catcher. San Francisco also added two tight ends in the draft, and are bringing back players that have experience on the practice squad.
49ers tight ends on 90-man roster
Rory Anderson a.k.a. 'Busta' (6-4, 246)
Blake Bell (6-6, 252)
Derek Carrier (6-4, 241)
Garrett Celek (6-5, 252)
Asante Cleveland (6-5, 260)
Vernon Davis (6-3, 250)
Xavier Grimble (6-4, 261)
Vance McDonald (6-4, 267)
Kyle Nelson* (6-2, 240)
Here's what we know about the position battle heading into training camp:
--San Francisco used a fourth-round pick on Bell, a former quarterback at Oklahoma, giving Carrier, Celek, and McDonald competition for roster spots. Bell is a good athlete, whose background as a quarterback could give him an advantage reading defenses and finding open pockets in the passing game. And at 6'6", he's the team's tallest player at the position, which could bode well for the 49ers, who are constantly looking for ways to improve in the red zone.
--The 49ers are entering camp with eight tight ends (excluding Nelson), a big number, after three of their top four players on the depth chart finished the season on injured reserve. The addition of Anderson, along with the decisions to bring back Grimble and Cleveland, signify the team wants to have insurance should it deal with injuries issues again after getting ravaged in 2014.
--Grimble and Cleveland are eligible to return to the 49ers' 10-man practice squad, where they each spent time in 2014.
--Triceps injuries to both arms hindered Anderson in 2014, causing him to miss two regular season games and a bowl game during his final season at South Carolina. He's viewed as a raw prospect, but has impressive speed. If he plays well during the preseason, the 49ers might have a hard time stashing the seventh-round pick on the practice squad. If Anderson can develop as a blocker and improve his fundamentals as a receiver, he will be in the mix for a roster spot, either with San Francisco or another team.
--It's clear San Francisco liked Carrier's receiving skills as a compliment to McDonald's blocking last season. Carrier has made a few big plays, particularly deep over the middle of the field, giving the team hope he could become a trusted target for Colin Kaepernick. Giving Carrier a contract extension was a sign the 49ers like the 25-year-old's steady development, making him an early favorite for a spot on the 53-man roster, should he stay healthy after last season's foot injury.
--All signs are pointing to a make-or-break August for McDonald. The use of a fourth-round pick on Bell, paired with Carrier's contract extension, say it's time for the former second-round pick to produce or find a job elsewhere. Perhaps his lack of security will give McDonald the motivation to pick up his play and solidify himself as the team's No. 2 tight end. McDonald might form a trinity of failed early draft picks at offensive skill positions for general manager Trent Baalke, joining receiver A.J. Jenkins (first round, 2012) and running back LaMichael James (second round, 2012).
--Celek is another player entering training camp with something to prove. He played in just three games last season after missing the first 11 while recovering from back surgery the previous summer. Then, he sustained an ankle injury in Week 15's loss in Seattle, which forced him to finish the year on injured reserve. When healthy, Celek is one of the best blocking tight ends in the group. But with eight players likely vying for three spots, Celek will have to do more than just block well to break camp on the roster.
--Despite his poor season in 2014, Davis is a virtual lock to remain San Francisco's No. 1 tight end. He was back with the team this spring after holding out during the entire offseason program last year, and looks to be in good shape. At 31, Davis is hoping a strong year can get him another big contract as he faces free agency following the season.