Niners positional draft analysis: TEs

It was just two years ago that Eric Johnson set a 49ers record for most receptions by a tight end, but the team figures to already be looking for his replacement in this year's tight end-rich draft. The 49ers are likely to grab a starting TE prospect in the top half of their 10 selections, and maybe even with their first pick. Here's a look at how SF shapes up at TE entering draft weekend, along with an in-depth individual examination of the top TEs available in the college lottery.

TIGHT ENDS ON 49ERS ROSTER: Eric Johnson, Terry Jones, Billy Bajema, Brian Jennings (team's long-snapper also is an emergency TE), Trent Smith (NFL Europe).

49ERS FIVE-YEAR REPORT: Total TEs drafted – 4. Still on roster – 2 (Johnson, Bajema). First-round picks – None. Highest pick – Aaron Walker, No. 161 overall pick in fifth round of 2003 draft.

2006 POSITIONAL DRAFT NEED: Though Johnson has proven that he can be an excellent receiving threat at the position, the 49ers are wary of his durability because he missed the entire 2003 and 2005 seasons with injuries. Johnson has committed himself to the team's workout program this year in an attempt to shed the label as an injury-plagued player, but his contract is up after this season and the 49ers are likely to go looking for a starting quality, all-around tight end in this draft that has several of them. With Jones and Bajema, the Niners have two nice complementary tight ends who both can block and also snare the occasional reception. But neither of them offer any kind of explosiveness or match-up problems at the position, and that's what the 49ers may go looking for in this tight end-rich draft as they attempt to upgrade one of their weakest positions of 2005. Smith likely becomes a non-factor if the 49ers do draft a tight end, because he is one-dimensional at the position.

POSITION OVERVIEW: The tight end position used to be one that was virtually ignored in the early rounds of draft day, but with the emergence of the tight end-as-go-to guy, that had changed. Players like Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates and Jeremy Shockey have transformed the position – and how coaches and general managers view them. It's not unusual to see at least one tight end go in the first round and a handful go in the first two rounds, as everyone looks for the Next Big Thing. While this year's class is pretty deep with players that will be considered on Day One, perhaps no player other than the top three quarterbacks will be more discussed and debated in the days and hours leading up to the draft than Vernon Davis of Maryland. After an incredible showing at the Combine, teams might look to trade up into the first seven picks to grab him. He's going to be a hot property and, if there is a trade made between picks 6-10, it likely will be a team looking to lock down Davis and continue the trend of tight ends being in the mix in the early portion of a draft's first round. The question for the 49ers: Do they trade the No. 6 pick or take Davis with it if some other team comes calling with an attractive offer?

THE CREAM OF THE CROP:

Vernon Davis, Maryland, 6-3¼, 254: Third-year junior…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2005 – in his first two years as a H-back, he caught 32 passes for 500 yards and three TDs; in his one season as a classic TE, he caught 51 passes for 871 yards and six touchdowns…Is a weight room monster, holding Terps school records for tight ends in with a 460-pound bench press, a 685-pound squat, a 355-pound clean and jerk, as well as records for vertical jump (40 inches) and 40-yard dash (4.41 seconds)…Has amazing speed for a tight end, as evidenced by averaging more than 17 yards per reception in 2005…Has big hands and plucks the ball naturally…Has the speed to outrun anyone on the defense and the size to brush aside D-backs coming at him one on one…Excellent leaping ability makes him dangerous in the red zone…Used as a tight end, H-back, slot receiver and lines up wide depending on the down and distance…Not a blocker and doesn't always seem willing to do that part of his job…A little on the short side for an NFL tight end…Not a student of the game, so he'll need a patient position coach…Did a phenomenal job at the Combine, running a 4.38 40 with 33 reps of 225 pounds, a phenomenal 42-inch vertical jump and a broad jump of 10-8.
Projection: Even teams that have a stud tight end will give him a long look. He could go anywhere after the fifth pick, but if he's still on the board when former new St. Louis coach Scott Linehan is on the clock at No. 11, the Rams won't have to worry about running out of time. He'll be off the board in less than a minute. But he is more likely to go in the top 10 picks.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Leonard Pope, Georgia, 6-8, 258: Third-year junior who attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia after playing his senior year of high school football in Georgia…Two-year starter who caught 64 passes for 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns in that span…Averaged more than 19 yards a catch as a sophomore…Is a monstrous target with big hands and long arms…Is especially dangerous in the red zone…Has enough speed to stretch the field down the seam…Some scouts believe he needs to add more bulk, because as 6-8, he's a little too thin…Isn't a top-notch blocker because his height plays against him and he gets pushed off-balance…Has been known to have an attitude problem when he's not getting passes thrown his way…Didn't show great speed at the Combine, running a 4.62 40 with 22 reps, a 37½ inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump.
Projection: Pope has the size and skills that coaches love and it will be difficult for teams at the end of the first round like the Bears and the handful of teams that follow them at the end of the first round to all pass on him. He may last until the second round, but don't bet on it.

Marcedes Lewis, UCLA, 6-6½, 261: Fourth-year senior who started the last 30 games of his career…In his final three years, he caught 120 passes for 1,520 yards and 20 touchdowns, including a career-best 58-741-10 as a senior…Was recruited much more as a basketball player than football player (similar to Gonzo and Gates)…Was a two-time finalist for the Mackey Award – given to the country's best tight end – and won the award in 2005…Has unusually long arms (35 inches)…Will make the difficult catch in traffic and over his shoulder…Dangerous in the red zone because of his height and good leaping ability…Can make the highlight reel catch on poorly thrown passes and had more than a couple at the Combine…His blocking is solid in the open field, but he doesn't have great lower-body strength and could be a liability at the next level in short-yardage and goal-line situations…Gets jammed too easily by linebackers and pushed off of his route…Has been criticized for his attitude and non-committal work ethic…Dropped his stock at the Combine with poor showings in the 40 and in the shuttle runs, finishing with a dismal 4.80 40 – among the worst of all tight ends that ran – 23 reps of 225 pounds, an impressive 37-inch vertical jump, a 9-10 broad jump and a woeful score of 13 on the Wonderlic test.
Projection: He's been a steady receiver and a huge threat in the red zone – averaging a touchdown per every 5.3 receptions the last two years. He needs to add bulk, but some teams are already worried about his lack of speed and adding more weight could make him slower. Still, he can be a dangerous receiving tight end and his upside should be enough to take him off the board somewhere in the second round.

Anthony Fasano, Notre Dame, 6-4¼, 259: Fourth-year junior…Two-year starter who caught 74 passes for 943 yards and six TDs in that span…Has soft hands and catches the ball well in traffic…Intelligent player who graduated with a degree in December…Good at reading defenses and finding the soft spots in zone coverage…Plays with a lot of fire and never gives up on a play until he hears the whistle…Played in a pro style offense with Charlie Weis, so scouts know what they see (good and bad) will translate to the NFL…Is neither overly fast nor strong – his 19 reps at the Combine were the second-lowest total for those who lifted…Is decent in the open field, but needs quite a bit of improvement to his in-line blocking…Ran a 4.71 40 at the Combine, with 19 reps of 225 pounds, a 33½ inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump.
Projection: He doesn't have the great speed of the new-look TE in the NFL, but he catches almost everything thrown his way and has the football smarts coaches love. That could be enough to see him go as early as the middle to late portions of the second round – but not earlier.

Joe Klopfenstein, Colorado, 6-5¾, 255: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who caught 86 passes for 1,076 yards and 13 touchdowns in that span…His 13 touchdowns set a school record for tight ends…Has the speed to get open down the seam for the deep pass…Has very good hands and doesn't wait for passes to get into his body…He's already big but has the body to add 10-15 pounds and not lose speed…A good leaper who can be a factor in the red zone…A favorite of the Colorado coaches, he is a student of the game…Needs to do a of work to become a sufficient NFL blocker…Was viewed by some as a one-trick pony in the passing game that didn't run a variety of routes…Was never a prime pass target, averaging just 2.5 catches a game in 34 career starts…Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine with 27 reps, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 9-4 broad jump.
Projection: He's the kind of player that a lot of teams will want, but that nobody will want especially early. He'll likely make it into the third round and, if he is still there after the first few picks, somebody might be willing to package a deal to move up a few spots and give up a Day Two pick to get him.

THE BEST OF THE REST

David Thomas, Texas, 6-3¼, 252: Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who caught 39 passes for 649 yards and eight TDs in his first two years as a full-time player and had 50-613-5 numbers last year…His career totals are 98-1,367-15 …Team captain…Graduated in less than four years…Has good quickness off the line…Smooth receiver who runs good routes…Isn't very tall, but has long arms…Good lead blocking on sweeps…Has also played fullback and H-back…Is not a prototype tight end – either in size for a pass-catching tight end or bulk for a blocking TE…Does not have good lower-body strength and will struggle against big NFL defensive ends…Has some difficulty beating jams off the line from linebackers…Ran a 4.67 40 at the Combine, with 19 reps, a 37½ inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
Projection: His measurables don't jump out at you, but keep in mind that he was a starter for a Longhorns team that was dominated by Heisman Trophy candidate Cedric Benson and the running game in 2004 and Heisman Trophy candidate Vince Young and a much more pass-oriented offense in 2005. That hasn't been lost on scouts – all of whom have seen several Texas games over the last two years. That should get him taken somewhere early in Day Two.

Tony Scheffler, Western Michigan, 6-5½, 254: Fifth-year senior who turned down a bonus contract from the New York Yankees after being drafted out of high school…Two-year starter who caught 110 passes for 1,240 yards and 12 touchdowns in that span…Missed all of his sophomore season with a broken collarbone, but hasn't had a serious injury since…Excellent size and has the ability to add 15 pounds more…Very good tight end speed and has the speed to stretch a defense down the middle…Was a big red zone target as a senior, leading the team with nine TD receptions…Returned kicks as a sophomore…Doesn't have good playing strength in either upper or lower body – he can get help on the upper body work, but his legs may never be thick enough or strong enough to be an in-line blocker in the NFL…Spent the previous three summers playing baseball…Has had several minor shoulder injuries that have lessened his effectiveness, but did not cost him too much playing time…Ran a 4.54 40 at the Combine with 17 reps, a 33½ inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump.
Projection: He has a future on the lines of a Chris Cooley H-back, but will never an every-down potential tight end, which should drop into the middle of Day Two.

Dominique Byrd, USC, 6-2¾, 252: Fourth-year senior…Didn't become a starter until 2005, finishing his college career with 81 catches for 968 yards and four TDs…Has a laundry list of injuries, including a torn left ACL in 2003, a broken left kneecap in 2004, surgery in early 2005 to remove cartilage from his right big toe and a broken jaw suffered in a fight with a teammate…Has good burst off the line…Makes most of his catches deep downfield…Does a nice job blocking…Had a very strong week of practice at the Senior Bowl…Injury history is a major red flag for a lot of teams…Is too short for the prototype NFL tight end…Was viewed by many as just a one-trick pony in college…Wasn't interested in the "student" part of student-athlete…Didn't lift or jump at the Combine and perhaps shouldn't have run – his 4.85 40 time was among the worst of any tight ends that tested.
Projection: He may go higher than some of the players listed above him, because so many NFL teams looking at film on the multitude of USC players on film may take notice of Byrd in the process. But he deserves to be graded down here and shouldn't go until well into Day Two – whether he does or not is yet to be seen.

Tim Day, Oregon, 6-3¼, 256: Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter…Finished his college career with 86 receptions for 1,006 yards and 13 touchdowns…His best season by far was his junior year when he had 35-457-8 numbers…Has surgery on both calves following the 2004 season to repair recurring calf problems…Has very long arms and can catch the ball at its highest point against shorter defenders…Runs good routes…Is a coach's dream – he gives his all in practice and on gameday…Played some slot receiver to create size mismatches…A little shorter than coaches want a TE to be…Doesn't have the speed to stretch a defense down the seam to open up receivers on underneath routes…Has an injury history that will scare off some teams…Ran a 4.75 40 at the Combine with 26 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and 9-1 broad jump.
Projection: Was used extensively as a junior but was the odd-man-out in the option offense employed his senior year. Scouts may have to go on his junior grades to get an accurate assessment. He'll be a mid- to late-round pick for teams with the luxury of carrying a pass-catching TE/H-back hybrid.

T.J. Williams, North Carolina State, 6-2½, 269: Fourth-year senior who spent at year at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia prior to enrolling at NC State…Three-year starter who caught 95 passes for 1,233 yards and five TDs – having more receptions each year of his college career…Had shoulder surgery after his junior year to repair a rotator cuff problem – similar to the surgery Kenechi Udeze had prior to be drafted by the Vikings…Very effective in zone coverages – finding the open spot and quickly turning to the quarterback for the short, efficient gain…Has been used as a slot receiver…Is hard to handle in man coverage with a linebacker or safety…Isn't afraid to take a big hit over the middle…Not an overpowering blocker despite good size…Shoulder problems remain a question mark, as well as an Achilles strain he suffered early in his career…Shorter than most tight ends, he will have trouble with tall, long-armed DEs…Not much of a threat as a goal-line receiver…Ran a 4.72 40 at the Combine, with 25 reps, a 34-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump.
Projection: Has the athleticism and experience that could lead some to look at him as a Day One possibility, but Day Two, perhaps well into Day Two, is a more likely scenario.

OTHERS TO WATCH

Troy Bienemann, Washington State, 6-4¾, 256
Owen Daniels, Wisconsin, 6-3¼, 250
Charles Davis, Purdue, 6-5¼, 260
Jeff King, Virginia Tech, 6-5¼, 245
Tim Massaquoi, Michigan, 6-2¾, 259
Jeff Pociask, Wisconsin, 6-3, 266
Joshua Tinch, Louisville, 6-2, 224
Cooper Wallace, Auburn, 6-3¾, 261

John Holler of VikingUpdate.com contributed to this report


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