On paper, the tight end position might not look like much of a need for the San Francisco 49ers. After all, they have their entire 2014 depth chart coming back, and there’s optimism that TE Vernon Davis can return to his dominant form.
With the ankle and back injuries that plagued Davis for much of last season apparently behind him, the two-time Pro Bowler appears rejuvenated, and ready for a bounce back campaign.
However, even with the renewed optimism, Davis still has to prove he can be the same player he was prior to 2014, when he set career lows in yards (245), yards per catch (9.4) and touchdowns (2). At 31 years-old and in the final year of his contract, his future with the team beyond 2015 is cloudy at best.
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that what the 49ers have at tight end beyond Davis is mostly unknown. The had hoped that the second round pick they invested in TE Vance McDonald in the 2013 NFL Draft would be ready to pay dividends, but he’s struggled to find his niche over his first two seasons.
In 23 career regular season games, McDonald has been targeted 26 times and only has 10 receptions (38 percent). He’s never caught more than a single pass in any one game and never scored a touchdown. With his cap number rising to over $1 million in 2016, this could be an all or nothing year for someone the 49ers once envisioned taking over for Davis.
There is some excitement around TE Derek Carrier, who was recently given a three-year contract for just under $3 million. In limited playing time, Carrier has shown flashes of being able to make plays, and caught nine passes on 14 targets in 2014 (64 percent). It’s not out of the question that he could leap McDonald on the depth chart, but his lack of experience (16 career games) makes him a question mark moving forward.
San Francisco also has TE Garrett Celek under contract, but he’s played sparingly during his three years with the team, and only has eight receptions.
With only Carrier looking like a definite piece of the puzzle in 2016, it’s likely the 49ers would look to draft a tight end, and/or bring in some possible candidates as undrafted free agents.
The team has begun to do their homework, and met with one of the more highly touted prospects when they sat down with Miami TE Clive Walford at the NFL Combine.
For my 49ers crowd, Miami TE Clive Walford said he spoke to team at Sr Bowl and has formal sit down with them here at the Combine.
— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) February 18, 2015
While Walford has the size and speed to be both a strong blocker and impact receiver, he’s projected to go as early as the second round and it’s unknown if the 49ers would take someone at the position that early with so many other holes to fill.
They’ve also met with Texas A&M TE Cameron Clear, but he’ seen as more of a late round flyer or free agent option, and may even be converted to an offensive tackle.
One interesting name to keep an eye on is Bemidji State TE Brock Lutes. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee reported that Lutes will visit Santa Clara in the coming weeks, and could be an interesting option. Lutes is also a star basketball player, and at 6-3 and 220 pounds, has the size to go along with his athleticism.
Lutes probably isn’t likely to get drafted, but could be signed as a free agent with the expectation that he sit an learn for year or two in hopes of providing big returns down the line.
Adding to the intrigue, Michigan WR Devin Funchess will also be visiting the 49ers, and there’s some debate as to whether or not he’s better suited for tight end. Funchess played the position in 2012 and 2013, before being shifted to wide out last season.
Regardless of whether it’s one of players mentioned above or someone less transparent at the moment, how San Francisco addresses the position in the draft or soon thereafter will be a development worth keeping tabs on.