San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: Changing of guard at tight end?

Video: San Francisco 49ers Training Camp Preview

Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.
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Matt Barrows talks about the three things he'll have his eye on when 49ers training camp begins later this week. Video by Manny Crisostomo.

Over the last few days, I’ve been ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Tight end

Recap. It was only a few years ago that the 49ers had two of the most talented tight ends in the NFL. That argument is bolstered by the fact that Delanie Walker, who played second fiddle to Vernon Davis in San Francisco earlier in his career, is now the top tight end in Tennessee. His 890 receiving yards were the fourth most of any tight end last season. Davis? He had the worst season of his career, one that began with an offseason holdout and ended with him catching just two touchdowns and none after Week 1. None of the other players at the position picked up the slack perhaps because the 49ers emphasized multiple-wide receiver formations more than two-tight-end sets last year. Vance McDonald caught only two passes before landing on injured reserve. Garrett Celek began the season with a back injury. The lone glimmer of hope was Derek Carrier, who made the most out of his scant snaps but who also ended the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. While Walker had 890 receiving yards in Tennessee, the 49ers' tight ends combined for 433 yards.

Outlook. Davis seems motivated for a bounce-back season and the group is being coached by a long-time tight ends/offensive line coach in Tony Sparano instead of someone with a defensive background in Eric Mangini. Sparano has a similar background and demeanor to Pete Hoener, the 49ers' ex-tight end coach who molded Davis into the well-rounded tight end he was at the apex of his career. Perhaps the most interesting player at the position is Carrier, who has good hands and big-play ability. He hauled in some poorly thrown passes last season, a trait that tends to win the confidence of quarterbacks. The question with Carrier is whether the one-time wide receiver is durable enough for the position. If the answer is, yes, it could signal Davis' final year with the team as he is in the final year of his contract. Meanwhile, rookies Blake Bell and Busta Anderson will push McDonald and Celek for roster spots. Bell is a former quarterback, but perhaps counter-intuitively, is a tough guy and was used as a point-of-attack blocker at Oklahoma. Asante Cleveland (Christian Brothers High) and Xavier Grimble round out the position. And even longsnapper Kyle Nelson can line up at tight end. That is, it would not be a surprise if Trent Baalke trades a tight end for a late-round draft pick.

Question marks. One question is, how many tight ends make the final roster? The 49ers have eight in uniform right now. And that's not counting Nelson or Trey Millard, a fullback who is capable of playing H-back. ... Prior to last season, Davis was nearly automatic when it came to deep passes down the seam. Will that route open up again if defenses are forced to pay attention to Torrey Smith down field? ... Baalke did not have much patience with high draft picks like A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James. Will he hesitate to turn the page on McDonald, a former second rounder?

Person of interest. It might be Carrier, whom the 49ers recently signed to a modest contract extension. If he can stay healthy, the 49ers may look to him to be their big-play tight end of the future.

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49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. defensive line

4. running back

5. wide receiver

6. quarterback

7. coming Thursday

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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