Taking a tight look at TE

Keep an eye on the 49ers' tight ends Saturday in Chicago. That's certainly what San Francisco's quarterbacks will be doing, just as they did in last week's preseason opener against the Raiders, when the Niners gave a good glimpse of their plans to get that position considerably more involved in their passing plans this season.

Coach Dennis Erickson has said all summer the 49ers will have their tight ends playing a more prominent role in their vertical passing game in 2004.

That new look was evident against Oakland as the team's top three tight ends combined for seven receptions for 134 yards, including a 31-yard catch by starter Eric Johnson and a 36-yard gain by backup Gabe Crecion.

San Francisco's tight ends averaged a phenomenal 19.1 yards per reception. The rest of team managed to average just 7.5 on 11 receptions.

The Niners will be playing much more two-tight end sets this year, and look for that even when they go into three-wide receiver formations. Spreading the field in that fashion will leave a lot of open spaces in the middle, where the tight ends will be able to take advantage, as was evidenced in the Oakland game.

Johnson and No. 2 tight end Aaron Walker both are being groomed for big roles in the offense this year and, while Johnson could become one of the most legitimate receiving threats on the entire team (given the youth and inexperience at receiver), Walker also could become a huge factor in his second season because of his ability to both block and catch. He may have the size and ability to become San Francisco's most complete tight end.

"I really believe he does because he catches it and he's big," Erickson said. "He's getting better all of the time. He's had a really good (training) camp, as has Eric. They've both had really good camps."

The big surprise at tight end last week was Crecion, who's in his second training camp with the 49ers. He also had a 21-yard touchdown catch and a 19-yard reception in addition to his 36-yard catch-and-run. Crecion is competing for the third tight end berth with James Jordan, Marcus Helfman and Kevin Ware, but he may have taken the inside track for that role if the Oakland game is a true indication of the kind of results he can produce as a receiver.

"(Crecion)'s improved and does some good things," Erickson said. "Whoever our third tight end is, (he) doesn't have to have all of the qualities, but he has to have a quality, whether it is as a receiver, a blocker, or a guy that can move. As we decide who we are going to keep as our third tight end, all of those things come into play. (Crecion)'s catching the ball and understands what is going on."

Make sure to check in Saturday with a close look at San Francisco's tight ends to get a better understanding of what's going on with their increased role in the offense. Just like last week, it should be evident to all as the Niners attempt to give opponents something to worry about in all facets of their aerial attack.


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