Season preview positional analysis: TEs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, 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

It has been pretty well documented by now that Mike Martz has never had a tight end to work with that possesses the talent and potential of Vernon Davis.

But he also never has had two tight ends to work with that possess the talent of Davis and less-heralded youngster Delanie Walker.

Martz plans to make use of both weapons in his attack this season, which promises to make the tight end position more prominent in San Francisco's offense than it has been in several years, and perhaps more prominent than it ever has been in Martz's offensive system.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Get the ball downfield to Davis and Walker:
Despite his speed and ability to consistently beat defenders, the 49ers never were able to get the ball to Davis with the deep pass on any consistent basis in 2007. That needs to change this season, and it's a dimension that could open up things for several other areas of the San Francisco offense. Walker, a converted receiver, also has the ability to get behind defenders.

Two-tight end sets: The 49ers figure to use a lot of them this season, whether it's Davis and Walker together or Davis with Billy Bajema together or even Walker with Bajema together. It will put a lot of pressure on opposing secondaries when they have to figure out how to cover both Davis and Walker along with the other wideouts the 49ers have in the game.

Blocking it out: One of the less-mentioned aspects of Davis' game is that he's an outstanding blocker. He was an integral part of any success the 49ers had rushing the football over the past two seasons. Bajema also is a quality blocker who is no slouch as a receiver. Opponents will be kept guessing what the 49ers are going to do regardless of the tight ends they have in the game at any given time.

The bottom line: With no turnover from last year, tight end easily is one of the most stable positions on the San Francisco roster this season. And all three players on the roster are youngsters on the rise whose best performance appears to be ahead of them. With new offensive coordinator Mike Martz a master at getting the best use out of his personnel, big performance can be expected this season from Davis, and perhaps to a lesser degree from Walker, too.


PLAYER TO WATCH/Vernon Davis

As usual, Vernon Davis was a training camp standout this summer. That also was the case last year, but the big season expected in 2007 from the No. 6 overall selection in the 2006 NFL draft never materialized. That was as much a result of San Francisco's lame offensive attack than any shortcomings by Davis, who missed two games with a knee injury. Still, Davis has something to prove in his third season, particularly to those who predicted greatness upon his NFL arrival. He recorded a career-high 52 receptions last season – one behind team leader Frank Gore – but averaged only 9.8 yards per reception, well below his capabilities and the 13.3-yard average he recorded as a rookie. With a new offense looking to take advantage of his special talent, Davis and the 49ers are looking for his breakout season to finally come in 2008.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starter for season opener
Vernon Davis
Reserves: Delanie Walker, Billy Bajema
Key new arrivals: None
Key departures: None
Tight ends coach: Pete Hoener, fourth year with 49ers, 10th year of NFL experience

Strengths: A starter with Pro Bowl potential in Vernon Davis, an all-around talent who can play on every down. A top alternative receiving threat in Delanie Walker. A solid blocker with adequate receiving skills in No. 3 tight end Billy Bajema.

Weaknesses: Walker is a converted receiver who is not a particularly strong blocker. Davis has had some injury issues, missing six games in his rookie season and two last year.

Fast fact: Vernon Davis' career-high 52 receptions in 2007 ranked fourth in the NFC among tight ends behind Dallas' Jason Witten (96), Washington's Chris Cooley (66) and New York's Jeremy Shockey.

Vital stat I: 73: Total receptions by San Francisco tight ends in 2007.

Vital stat II: 17: Total receptions by San Francisco tight ends in 2005, the season before Davis and Walker arrived in 2006.


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