San Francisco 49ers

Combine cometh: 49ers have decisions to make at tight end

Vernon Davis, who will count nearly $7 million against the salary cap, caught just two touchdowns in 2014 after grabbing 13 the year before.
Vernon Davis, who will count nearly $7 million against the salary cap, caught just two touchdowns in 2014 after grabbing 13 the year before. The Bee

The annual scouting combine begins next week, which will turn the discussion to the 49ers' offseason needs. Next up: tight end, which went from team strength in 2013 to missing in action in 2014.

Past. No position on the 49ers performed as dramatic a disappearing act as the tight ends. In 2013, for example, Vernon Davis had 850 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. A year later, those numbers dropped to 245 yards and two touchdowns. Vance McDonald, a second-round pick in 2013, should have picked up the slack. In two seasons, however, McDonald's considerable size/speed assets haven't translated to production in the passing game, and he ended the season with a back injury. The best 49er at the position -- or at least the one who did the most with the least snaps -- was converted wide receiver Derek Carrier, who played 188 snaps but who finished with nine catches for 105 yards, some of them on grabs with a high degree of difficulty.

Present. Davis is set to make $4.3 million in base salary and to count $6.97 million against the salary cap in 2015. That's a huge amount, especially for someone responsible for just 7 percent of the 49ers' receiving yards the year before.

How the team proceeds with Davis will be interesting. The 49ers already are bumping against the salary cap and could conclude he isn't worth his hefty price tag. Or they could reason that his one-year slump was an aberration. At this point, he is the most explosive player -- the only explosive player? -- in their offense.

One of the themes of the 49ers' recent coaching search was that the interviewees were stunned by how little production the team received from Davis and assured the 49ers they would get more. That's not surprising. Perspective head coaches tend to say things that front office personnel want to hear. Still, if the 49ers can address their salary-cap issues elsewhere, it may make more sense to keep Davis. After all, they'd have a hard time trading him and his salary. If they hung onto him this season and he left via free agency next March, they at least could get a compensatory pick in 2017.

Future: Both McDonald and Garrett Celek dealt with back injuries in 2015 while Carrier and Davis have only one year remaining on their current contracts. Carrier is someone to watch. If the 49ers give him a contract extension this offseason, it will be a signal that they envision him in bigger role, perhaps a starting role, in the future.

Even if they extend Carrier, the 49ers may need more bodies at the position. There are several options in free agency, including Colin Kaepernick's college tight end, Virgil Green. The draft is not deep at the position, although the team certainly could use a mid- or late-round pick on a tight end. Two other tight ends, Sacramento's Asante Cleveland and Xavier Grimble, are currently on the roster. Either could sneak onto the 53-man squad in September, especially if they make strides as blockers this offseason.

Combine workout schedule:

Friday, Feb. 20: Specialists, offensive linemen, tight ends

Saturday, Feb. 21: Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers

Sunday: Feb. 22: Defensive linemen, linebackers

Monday, Feb. 23: Defensive backs

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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