Season in review: Tight ends

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Tight ends

Tight ends on final 53-man roster: Vernon Davis, Eric Johnson, Billy Bajema, Delanie Walker

Starter in season opener: Vernon Davis

Starter in season finale: Vernon Davis

Unit MVP: Vernon Davis

Top newcomer: Vernon Davis

Most improved: Vernon Davis

Biggest disappointment: Vernon Davis' broken right fibula in Week 3, which caused the heralded rookie to miss six games and parts of two others, hampering his development early in his first NFL season.

Biggest surprise: Delanie Walker

On the rise: Vernon Davis

On the slide: Eric Johnson

Overachiever: Billy Bajema

Underachiever: None

What went right: Davis made a wow debut by taking the first touch of his NFL career - a short pass on a delayed crossing pattern - and turning it into a tackle-breaking sprint down the left sideline for a 31-yard touchdown reception to culminate the 49ers' first offensive possession of the season in the opener at Arizona. Davis went on to have five receptions in that game, and then - after returning from his broken leg - he worked back slowly into the lineup and came on strong with several big plays in San Francisco's final four games. Davis had 13 receptions for 196 yards and two touchdowns in those four games, displaying his big-play ability and his game-breaking talent in the open field. Davis had a signature 52-yard touchdown reception in Week 15, when he ran through and over Green Bay defenders and then ran away from them into the end zone to complete the longest reception of the season for a San Francisco tight end. Davis also had a 44-yard reception against Arizona. Davis' extraordinary speed down the middle opened other areas for San Francisco's passing game and his rapidly-developing blocking - considered his weakness coming into the NFL - was above average and became a factor in San Francisco's strong running game. He finished his rookie season fifth on the team with 20 receptions for 265 yards - a 13.3 average - and tied for the team lead with three touchdown catches. Johnson, who set a franchise record for receptions by a tight end with 82 in 2004, made a solid return to the team after missing the entire 2005 season with a foot injury. With Davis quickly becoming an every-down factor in the San Francisco offense, Johnson didn't get much playing time in the first two games - he had just one reception for two yards - but he quickly emerged after Davis' injury, catching a season-high seven receptions for 87 yards in Week 3 against Philadelphia, the game in which Davis was hurt in the third quarter. Johnson started the next six games in Davis' place and had three receptions in each of the first five. He finished the season fourth on the team with 34 receptions for 292 yards and two touchdowns. Bajema, though he was a non-factor in the passing game and finished the season without a catch, was a strong blocker in two tight-end sets and contributed to the team's rushing success in that area while playing 235 snaps. Walker, who flashed skill and potential in several areas, was limited by injuries but had a 29-yard reception against Green Bay, one of his two catches on the season in the seven games he played.

What went wrong: Davis' broken leg in September was a big blow to his development in particular and the team's offense in general, because opposing defenses learned quickly that his speed down the middle and the threat he presented as a receiver in open space had to be respected. With that element missing, opposing defenses could play San Francisco differently, because Johnson does not possess the same kind of speed or athleticism. Though both helped the team individually, Johnson and Davis never really seemed to complement each other when they were on the field together, as the team had hoped. Not counting the Philadelphia game during which Davis was hurt, or the Week 11 game in which Davis returned but only played five snaps, Johnson and Davis played in only five games together (Johnson was inactive Weeks 13-15 with an injury). And in those five games, Johnson had just six receptions for only 29 yards. Johnson was not much of a downfield threat as he averaged a career-low 8.6 yards per reception on the season, including an average of 5.7 yards or fewer in six of the games in which he caught passes. Davis had several drops on the season - some of them consequential - and he still needs to learn to catch the ball with his hands instead of his with his body. His rawness and inexperience also showed on passing routes and with some careless penalties. Bajema, a solid player, probably could have been used in better ways as a receiving option when he was in the game, since opponents would not have been expecting it. Walker, who showed tremendous potential during the summer and was a big-play machine in the August preseason opener against Chicago, was hampered by several injuries that prevented him from getting involved or finding a niche in an offense that could have benefited from his athletic skills.

Looking forward in 2007: Johnson will become an unrestricted free agent in March, and because he has experience and ability as a NFL starter, he could command an offer on the open market that will be too rich for the 49ers to contend with, considering the money the team has invested in Davis, whose first NFL contract was the richest in league history for a tight end. Johnson has indicated he'd like to return to the 49ers, and the 49ers would like him back, which would give the team a dynamic set of tight ends if he does agree to return for a deal that likely would pay him less than he could get elsewhere. The likelihood Johnson will return is 50-50 at best, and probably less than that. With Walker possessing considerable potential and more athleticism than Johnson, the 49ers may just let Johnson walk in the offseason and give Walker a shot as the second receiving tight end. The 49ers also could find a complementary tight end in free agency, so there is definitely a ceiling to what they'll pay Johnson to return, and it is not very high. Bajema is an unsung player who has a place on this team, and his role could expand if Johnson doesn't return. If all four tight ends on San Francisco's 2006 roster return this year, the 49ers will be both strong and dynamic at tight end and it could be one of the strongest positions on the team.

Final 2006 unit grade: C-plus

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