49ers preparing for the draft: TE

As the 49ers prepare for the NFL draft this weekend, here's an analysis of the team at the tight end position, looking at San Francisco's draft needs and why the Niners may or may not use one of their six selections at this position, what rounds in which the team should think about a tight end and some of the prospects available that the team may consider.

Current players: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema, Cooper Wallace

State of the position: The 49ers remain long on both talent and promise at this position, but they're still waiting for starter Vernon Davis to fulfill his potential and become an impact player in his third season. That has yet to happen for the No. 6 overall pick of the 2006 draft, who has been slow to come around as the star attraction many expect him to be. Davis has the talent and athletic ability, there's no doubt about that, but now he needs to refine his game and do a better job of running routes and making both the tough catches and the ones he should make easily. As the rest of the offense floundered last year, it didn't seem the 49ers could figure out the best way to use Davis and make him effective in the passing game, and that will be one of the pet projects for new offensive coordinator Mike Martz. After missing Weeks 4 and 5 with a knee injury last year, Davis returned and had four or more receptions in seven of San Francisco's final11 games while showing some flashes of play-making ability. But the 49ers rarely attempted to take advantage of his speed and get the ball to him deep down the field, and Davis' 9.8-yard average per catch was a disappointment and way down from his impressive 13.3 average on 20 receptions in his injury-plagued rookie season. Walker developed as a receiving threat in his second season and is a nice complement to Davis in the passing game. With Davis and Walker, the 49ers have two tight ends who can do some damage when isolated on defenders in man-to-man coverage, situations they're likely to find this year as Martz spreads out the offense with multi-receiver sets. Bajema also is a capable receiver, but his primary role is as a blocker, a job he does well, as does Davis. Bajema, who hasn't caught a pass in two seasons, also may see a few passes come his way in the Martz offense. Cooper has spent time with three other NFL teams and will get a look in training camp.

Position draft need priority: Low

Last tight ends drafted: Vernon Davis, 2006 first round, No. 6 player selected overall; Delanie Walker, 2006 sixth round, No. 175 player selected overall

Why the 49ers will draft a tight end: Because a prospect they have rated highly takes a big fall to them in the selection process, and they decide to grab him in a best-player available scenario and add another quality player to the competition at the position.

Why the 49ers won't draft a tight end: They are set with three young, capable players at the position, each of whom already has years of development in the team's system. And the Niners have way too much money tied up in the position already to add a draft pick who will require a bonus before he even steps on the field for training camp.

When to address: Sixth or seventh round

Who's out there: It's not a great year for tight ends with few blue-chip prospects out there. The best of the bunch – and the ones likely to go off the board soonest – are USC's Fred Davis, Texas A&M's Martellus Bennett and Purdue's Dustin Keller. Some promising prospects such as Cal's Craig Stevens, Notre Dame's John Carlson, Missouri's Martin Rucker, Tennessee's Brad Cottam and Louisville's Gary Barnbridge could slip down into the middle to late rounds, where the 49ers would at least give them some thought. More likely, the team will wait until after the draft and sign as a free agent one of the better prospects that didn't get selected during the lottery process to add another body to the position at training camp. Stanford's Evan Moore, a marginal prospect, was among the dozens of players the 49ers had on hand at the team facility last week for their local pro day and could be a player considered in that category.

Expert analysis: "(Vernon) Davis … he's not an elite tight end. He flashes, and no question shows talent, but he's not a guy that gets you real excited yet. He hasn't proven himself to be as good as where he got picked. He believes he's a superstar when at this point he's really either average or below average," -- Former NFL scout Russ Lande, draft expert for The Sporting News and author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft


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