During the 2012 offseason, there was a battle at the bottom of the 49ers’ roster between two undrafted tight ends, Konrad Reuland and Garrett Celek, that few people knew or probably cared much about.
“We called it ‘Soft Knocks,’ ” offensive coordinator Geep Chryst recalled. “ ... As opposed to the ‘Hard Knocks’ that you normally have in training camp. They had fun with it because they wanted to compete. How do you get better? You have to kind of show up every day with not a whole lot of credit. You’re not going to go home and read headlines about how your day went.”
The 49ers’ headliners at that time were Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, one of the best tight end tandems in the league. The competition between Celek and Reuland was for the No. 3 spot, which the 49ers envisioned as a blocking specialist.
Celek edged out Reuland that summer. He went on to play 10 percent of the 49ers’ offensive snaps and finished his rookie season with four catches for 51 yards.
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I don’t want to be a tight end that just stays in and blocks. In the past, that’s who I was. Now I have more chances to do bigger things.
49ers tight end Garrett Celek
Three years later, Davis and Walker are on different rosters, Reuland is out of the league, and Celek – who went largely unnoticed in his first three seasons in San Francisco – has emerged as the team’s top tight end.
When the 49ers traded Davis to the Denver Broncos this month, he had 18 catches for 194 yards and no touchdowns. Celek has 19 catches for 186 yards. His three scoring receptions lead the team.
Since he took over as the starting quarterback this month, Blaine Gabbert has thrown three touchdown passes, all to tight ends. Celek has two; Vance McDonald made his first-ever touchdown catch Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.
“I think Garrett’s a great example of a guy who’s just doing his job, tries not to be flashy, but has really made some nice plays for us within the structure of the offense,” Chryst said.
Celek landed a roster spot in 2012 because the coaches liked his size, athleticism and grit in his competition with Reuland. They also knew his bloodlines.
Celek never had much of an opportunity to catch passes in college at Michigan State, which used its tight ends almost solely as blockers. He had three receptions in his senior season, a big reason he went undrafted. NFL teams covet tight ends who can be used in the passing game. Celek’s highlight reel lasted only 25 seconds.
But his older brother Brent, also a tight end, already was an accomplished NFL pass catcher. In 2011, Brent caught 62 passes for 811 yards and five touchdowns for the Philadelphia Eagles. The 49ers figured that if Brent, who also was used mostly as a blocker in college, could learn how to catch passes, his little brother could, too.
Asked the difference between him and his brother, Brent Celek, 30, paused for several seconds, then conceded that Garrett, 27, may be a tad faster. The real difference, he said, is their respective experiences.
When he entered the league in 2007, he joined an Andy Reid-coached Eagles team that ran a traditional West Coast offense.
“You’re passing the ball more, spreading it around to everybody,” said Brent, who had 280 catches from 2007 to 2012, Reid’s last season in Philadelphia.
Garrett, first at Michigan State and then in Greg Roman’s power-based offense with the 49ers, always had been used as a blocker. He said it was his blocking ability that caught Roman’s eye in 2012.
“He said, ‘You’re a good blocking tight end. We could really use that,’ ” Celek said. “That’s great, but I also want to do a little more.”
Did he tell Roman that?
3 Touchdown catches by 49ers tight end Garrett Celek this season, a team high
“No, you don’t say that at all,” he said. “You just do what you’re told.”
This year, Celek’s role began to expand. During spring sessions, he said he felt his route running and pass catching were better than they had ever been. That performance coincided with a new offensive system that used multiple tight ends as both blockers and pass catchers.
Davis’ trade, meanwhile, opened even more opportunities for Celek, who has hung onto 19 of the 28 passes that have been thrown his way.
“I don’t want to be a tight end that just stays in and blocks,” Celek said. “In the past, that’s who I was. Now I have more chances to do bigger things.”