When Michael Crabtree went down for most of the season with an Achiles’ injury, all eyes started to focus on the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver group. Can Anquan Boldin still be a number one option at this point in his career? Will A.J. Jenkins take a step forward and make an impact? Can Mario Manningham come back healthy at some point? The attention on the wide outs is warranted and this group needs to do their part, however, the position that could have the biggest impact on the passing game is tight end.
In the two years since Jim Harbaugh took over the reins, the 49ers have often featured two tight end sets in their offensive attack. It’s allowed to the team to be flexible in either running or passing out of two tight end formations. What allowed them to feature this look was the versatility of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Both players are excellent blockers and matchup nightmares in the passing game.
The 49ers let Walker leave via free agency without much of a fight as he signed four-year 17.5 million dollar deal with the Titans. The team was wise to avoid paying that kind of money for Walker despite his Swiss Army knife like skill set. Walker could be moved all over the field and used in a variety of packages but he was, at times, a liability as a receiver. Walkers caught 21 passes in 2012 but dropped nine catchable balls. The 49ers will need a better production than that for the tight ends to make a bigger impact.
Enter Vance McDonald, a 6’5 pass catching tight end from Rice University. The 49ers drafted McDonald in the second round of the 2013 draft. McDonald was used primarily out of the slot at Rice. Of his 36 receptions in 2012, 28 went for first downs. The 49ers will need that kind of clutch play to move the chains as Crabtree was prolific in that area, especially on third downs. Out of Crabtree’s 32 third downs receptions, 24 of those went for first downs. Though McDoanld will not be the inseide blocker Walker is, he should be effective in sealing the edge given his experience in the slot. The 49ers are hoping McDonald will catch on quickly and be able to make an impact right away.
While McDonald may prove to be a nice addition, the man the 49ers must count on to be a game changer is Vernon Davis. The All Pro tight end hasn’t always been part of the offensive game plan trough the air in the Harbaugh era. Over his last seven regular season games, Davis only had 7 receptions for 61 yards and no touchdowns. Some questioned whether or not he was struggling building a rapport with Colin Kaepernick.
The questions were put to rest when Davis exploded in the playoffs for the second straight year. He caught 12 passes for 254 yards and a score in three games. Over the past two seasons, Davis has 22 receptions for 546 yards and 5 touchdowns (one of them will live in 49ers’ lore forever) over five playoff games. That kind of production shows that when the 49ers feature him in their game plan, Davis delivers.
The 49ers will no doubt make it a point to keep Davis involved early and often this season. Reports were the team had him practicing with the wide receivers in mini camp. Odds are Davis will not be a wide receiver exclusively, but expect him to be moved around all over the field to take advantage of match ups and get him the ball in space.
Davis may be the most explosive player that Kaepernick with have at his disposal. If McDonald can produce early, the 49ers could center their passing attack around the talented tight ends. With Boldin aging and the other receivers being big question marks, the 49ers will need their tight ends more than ever in 2013.
Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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