The tight end position is an integral part of the San Francisco 49ers’ offense, and for the first two seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the team had one of the best pairings in the NFL.
Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker were both taken by the 49ers in the 2006 draft. The two learned the ropes together and suffered through some dark times in San Francisco before Harbaugh brought his tight end-friendly system to the bay in 2011. Under Harbaugh, many offensive alignments call for a two-tight end set which allowed the Niners to take advantage of having a pair of athletically gifted and versatile players at the position.
In 2011-2012, Davis and Walker combined for 1,882 yards receiving and 17 touchdowns. Perhaps more importantly is the fact that both players were significant matchup problems for defenses and opened up other avenues in the passing game, especially on routes down the field. Walker was deemed the team’s “Swiss Army Knife” by Harbaugh because he had lined up at wide receiver, fullback, running back, and right tackle over their two seasons together.
When Walker’s contract was up at the end of 2012, it was inevitable that another team would view him as a number one option (something he would never be in San Francisco with Davis in front of him) and offer a large contract. As expected, that happened when the Tennessee Titans swooped in with a 4-year, $17.5 million contract offer that Walker accepted. The 49ers were right in not matching or exceeding such an offer, but were left with a void nonetheless.
In an effort to move on at the position, the 49ers invested a second round draft pick in Rice tight end Vance McDonald. San Francisco traded up to 55th overall to select McDonald after five other tight end prospects were off the board. For his collegiate career, McDonald caught 119 passes for 1,504 yards and 15 touchdowns. He played primarily out of the slot in college, which would have indicated he could have been used in a similar role for San Francisco.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, McDonald didn’t pan out in his rookie season. He only caught 8 passes for 119 yards and failed to score a touchdown. While Walker was someone the 49ers looked to for big plays (he led the NFL with 220 receiving yards on passes down field in 2012), McDonald struggled to make any kind of an impact. He did not have more than one reception in any single game and was only targeted 3 times over the team’s last eight contests. While it would be premature to completely judge him on his first year alone, McDonald didn’t make enough of an impressions to think he would be a candidate to take a step forward in 2014.
The 49ers finished 30th in the NFL in total passing yards and struggled for most of 2013 throwing the football. They had the least amount of first downs through the air and had to lean heavily on their running game for most of the year. While a large part of that was due to the absence of Michael Crabtree, an argument could also be made that the struggles were (in part) a product of having no compliment to Davis in a tight end-heavy system. After all, the 49ers only had one reliable wide receiver for much of 2011-2012 and were able to make up for it with the pairing of Walker and Davis.
The question now is, what should the 49ers do?
The draft (and possibly even free agency) will tell a lot about what they truly think of McDonald. If the team invests an early pick in a tight end, it’s safe to say that Trent Baalke and company are admitting they whiffed on McDonald and are turning the page. If not, it’s possible the team saw enough in him to think that he might be able to improve in year two.
Whichever road taken, the reality of the situation is the team needs better production from whoever is paired with Davis. If not, the offense could again look stagnant at times, especially if Crabtree, Davis, or Anquan Boldin miss any time.
Photo: Nhat V. Meyer/ Bay Area News Group/ MCT
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