Season preview positional analysis: TEs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Tight ends

The 49ers were looking to get their tight end of the future when they made Vernon Davis the No. 6 overall selection in the 2006 NFL draft.

The future has arrived.

After his rookie year was thwarted by a broken leg that caused him to miss almost half the season, Davis came on strong once he returned from that injury and carried that over into 2007, where he has been one of the team's top performers during both spring and summer drills.

Davis shows the promise to not only become San Francisco's top target in the passing game, but also one of the top play-making tight ends in the NFL during his sophomore season, and he has two young players behind who also have things to contribute at the position.

Is Davis really ready for the big time?
It sure looks that way, and he certainly thinks so. Davis exudes confidence to the point of being cocksure, and he doesn't attempt to conceal the belief that he's destined for greatness and will prove it on the field. He is a dynamic player who has developed considerably as a complete tight end since being drafted. His combination of size and speed make him a match-up nightmare for linebackers and safeties alike, and the 49ers intend to make him a significant figure in their offensive attack while attempting to isolate him on defenders. Davis also is a fine blocker who contributes in that area to San Francisco's strong running game. Now, if can just keep his head on straight, Davis could be on the fast track to stardom. For him, that might be the hard part.

Who will replace Eric Johnson as a complementary receiving threat?
Davis figures to be the primary target at tight end on a regular basis, but the team also needs to fill the shoes of Johnson, who left the 49ers as a free agent during the offseason to join the New Orleans Saints. Johnson had 34 receptions last year to lead all San Francisco tight ends, and he was one of the most productive receivers ever for the 49ers at that position, setting a team record for a tight end with 82 receptions in 2004. Though the team made a token attempt to keep Johnson around, it didn't really mind seeing him go because second-year player Delanie Walker is waiting in the wings. Walker isn't the polished, sure-handed product Johnson is, but he possesses better play-making ability and the 49ers are sure to find ways to use him in their offense and get him the ball.

How prominent will the tight end be in the San Francisco attack?
With Frank Gore in the backfield and several upgrades at wide receiver, it kind of makes you wonder. But expect the 49ers to use their tight ends on a steady basis, and that goes beyond just Davis, who figures to be on the field virtually every offensive play. The Niners will use several two tight-end formations that also will feature Walker and Billy Bajema, a strong blocker who also can be a reliable pass-catcher when thrown to. Davis, Walker and Bajema will continually be shifting in the team's offensive formations, and each occasionally will be used in an H-back role where opponents won't know if they're there to block or run a route out of the backfield.

The bottom line: This is the best group of tight ends the 49ers have had since Brent Jones was at the end of his career in the late 1990s. Davis is a better player than last year and has star potential, and the backups behind him aren't bad, either.


Starter for season opener: Vernon Davis
Reserves: Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema
Key new arrivals: None
Key departures: Eric Johnson
Tight ends coach: Pete Hoener, third year with 49ers, ninth year of NFL experience

Strengths: A dynamic starter in Vernon Davis who is a complete player at the position and possesses the speed to go deep like no other tight end in the NFL. Solid backups in Delanie Walker and Billy Bajema, who both have something to offer in different roles.

Weaknesses: Davis could use a bit of humility in his demeanor and needs to keep himself focused. Walker is a beefed-up college wide receiver who is not a strong blocker.

Fact check: Vernon Davis became the second player in 49ers history to score a touchdown the first time he touched the football in his rookie season, taking a short pass from Alex Smith and turning it into a 31-yard scoring reception to culminate San Francisco's first offensive possession in the team's season opener last year at Arizona.

Vital stat 1: 17: Total receptions by San Francisco tight ends in 2005

Vital stat II: 56: Total receptions by San Francisco tight ends in 2006

Vital stat III: 13.3: Vernon Davis' average per reception as a rookie in 2006, the highest by a San Francisco tight end since Brent Jones averaged 13.7 yards per catch in 1994.

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