Eric Mangini may not have had experience coaching tight ends before the year began, but he already was quite familiar with his most prominent pupil.
In 2006, Mangini, who became the 49ers’ tight ends coach in February, was the new head coach of the New York Jets, who had the fourth pick in the draft after managing just four wins the previous season.
As April crept closer, Mangini said the Jets narrowed their options to two prospects: Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson or a tight end out of Maryland named Vernon Davis.
New York had a huge need at left tackle at the time and tapped Ferguson, who has started every game since and who has made three Pro Bowls. But Mangini said it was an extremely close call and that the Jets still were debating the choice the night before the draft.
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Mangini thought long and hard about how he’d use Davis, whom the 49ers took two picks later.
“Coming from New England, where we played a lot of split-safety defense, I knew the problems that good tight ends could (create),” said Mangini, who had been the Patriots’ defensive coordinator before he was hired in New York.
“And Vernon was special in college,” he said. “We saw that and were thinking, again from a defensive perspective, of all the problems we can generate with that player. It was the night before the draft, and we were still going back and forth on those two guys. I loved – loved – him, and I love the guy. Even when I first got here, we had that bond.”
The quote hints at what makes Mangini unique as a tight ends coach.
He made a name for himself coaching defensive backs, and his expertise to this point has been on that side of the ball. He spent nearly a decade keenly aware of the vulnerabilities in a defensive backfield, and he will try to exploit them via Davis and the 49ers’ other tight ends.
Second-year player Vance McDonald said learning from Mangini, who became the head coach in Cleveland after his three-year stint in New York, was “almost like hearing from this Almighty” in the meeting room.
“It’s not just you and what you’re doing,” McDonald said. “It’s the context of the play, the man you’re matched up against, down and distance. There are so many things that go into football that can make the game so much slower for us. And that’s something he helps us all with.”
Mangini said coaching tight ends was a “totally new world for me” but that he likes the challenge and craves being taken from his comfort zone. He also said it wasn’t the first time he switched from one side of the ball to the other.
In 1995, when Mangini was an assistant with the Browns, he first worked with the offensive line and the quarterbacks. But the head coach at the time, Bill Belichick, had Mangini and the other young coaches switch to the other side of the ball to gain perspective.
“That was something Bill Belichick always did with his younger coaches,” Mangini said. “ … So when you’re attacking the other side, you’re not saying, ‘Well, I think they’re doing this.’ You’re saying, ‘This is exactly what they’re doing. This is why they’re doing it. Here’s the weakness. So let’s attack here.’ ”
Mangini adopted the approach when he became a head coach, going so far as to have “swap days” in New York and Cleveland during spring OTA sessions. On those days, the offensive and defensive players switched sides, with the defensive backs, for example, studying the same film and receiving tutorials on the same techniques the wide receivers worked on every day.
At age 43, Mangini is the 49ers’ youngest position coach, and he is entering the final year of his two-year contract. He’s been open about wanting to be a head coach again.
But he said he’s happy where he is now and ostensibly is making himself into a better candidate by gaining offensive expertise and by learning from Jim Harbaugh.
“I love Jim’s approach,” he said. “Jim is open to ideas. I really respect his willingness to listen to ideas, his willingness to try a new thing. Everybody talks about, ‘We’re going to think outside of the box.’ Jim is willing to do some of that. And when you’re willing to experiment, to take chances … then you’ve got a real chance for growth, for gaining a competitive edge. And I love that about him.”