San Francisco 49ers

49ers no longer dominant at tight end

Stanford's Austin Hooper, right, catches a touchdown pass as Oregon State's Larry Scott trails during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Friday, Sept. 25, 2015.
Stanford's Austin Hooper, right, catches a touchdown pass as Oregon State's Larry Scott trails during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Corvallis, Ore., Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. AP

The scouting combine begins next week, and the 49ers will be busy. They are projected to have a league-high 12 picks and could use help at just about every position. Over the next week we’ll look at every spot on the team as well as which college prospects might fit with the 49ers.

Tight end

Need level: low to moderate

Under contract for 2016: Rory Anderson, Blake Bell, Je’Ron Hamm, Brian Leonhardt, Vance McDonald. (The team reportedly is close to a contract extension with Garrett Celek).

THE SITUATION

At one point last preseason, the 49ers felt they had seven tight ends good enough to play in the NFL, and they built their offense around that group. While the position may have been deep, it turned out to be rather pedestrian with Celek and McDonald – they combined for 49 catches and six touchdowns – being the best of the bunch.

If they continue to be a power-running team that leans on tight ends, the 49ers will need to upgrade either in free agency (deep in tight ends) or in the draft (few top-quality players).

But if Chip Kelly’s tenure with the Eagles is an indication, the 49ers will rely on their wide receivers far more than tight ends. Kelly used two-tight ends formations – called 12 personnel – 25.8 percent of the time last season, according to Pro Football Focus. By contrast, the 49ers were in “12” personnel 44.3 percent of the time.

One of the Eagles’ tight ends was Celek’s older brother, Brent. The other was former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, whom Kelly and the Eagles took in the second round in 2013. It’s easy to see Garrett Celek and McDonald fitting into the roles that Brent Celek and Ertz played in Philadelphia.

The others, including 2015 draft picks Bell and Anderson, seem destined to compete for the third spot. One reason why the 49ers could invest a high- to mid- level draft pick on a tight end: McDonald is entering the final year of his contract. Another: Their early second-round pick traditionally is one at which a tight end provides good value.

THE 2016 CLASS

Hunter Henry, Arkansas: He has good athleticism for someone his size (6-foot-5, 253 pounds) and is well-versed in in-line blocking after playing in Arkansas’ run-heavy offense. However, he – and every good blocking tight end in the draft – may have more appeal to a power-oriented team than the 49ers.

Nick Vannett, Ohio State: He’s interesting because he didn’t get a lot of pass-catching opportunities with the Buckeyes, but he appears to have the size and light feet to be good in this area. He’s one of the top blocking tight ends in the draft.

Austin Hooper, Stanford: He’s good at catching passes in traffic and has a solid blocking background given Stanford’s pro-style system. Kelly got a lot of production out of Ertz and might be intrigued by another Stanford player.

Thomas Duarte, UCLA: He’s smaller, at 225 pounds, than the prototypical tight end, but the position is heading in that direction and a tight end who can get downfield quickly may appeal to Kelly. Duarte had a 16.5-yard average on 53 catches last season and scored 10 touchdowns.

MONDAY: The 49ers’ options at quarterback.

TUESDAY: Which running backs will help Hyde?

WEDNESDAY: 49ers have few proven receivers.

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

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