San Francisco 49ers: Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart at Tight End
We’re continuing our offseason look at the San Francisco 49ers’ depth with the tight ends, a position that either is one of San Francisco’s strengths or a critical area of weakness, depending on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.
If your glass is half-full, you see the team being led by one of the top five tight ends in football in Vernon Davis, though at the end of the prime of his career. Behind him, you have a highly touted second-round pick from 2013 in Vance McDonald, complete with a season under his belt. It’s your standard star and eventual replacement as an understudy—a perfect situation.
If your glass is half-empty, you see Davis holding out, despite being the third-highest-paid tight end in the league, according to Spotrac, with no sign he plans to report anytime soon. Behind him, McDonald had a poor enough rookie season that Pro Football Focus rated him as poor when breaking down San Francisco’s lineup.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle. It seems likely that Davis will report at some point during training camp, and McDonald will be better after a year in the system. How much better? That of course remains to be seen.
The result of the holdout and the poor rookie season from McDonald means tight end possibly has the widest range of possible results in the 2014 season in San Francisco. They may have a corps that’s the envy of the rest of the league, or they could be forced to three- and four-wide as their tight ends fail to live up to expectations.
The 49ers used “22” personnel—or two running backs, two tight ends—more than any other team, using it on 26 percent of their offensive plays in 2013, per Football Outsiders.
They also used “12” personnel on an additional 15 percent of plays, meaning they were running two tight ends more than twice out of every five snaps. Part of that is due to the injury to Michael Crabtree requiring them to scramble, but it’s also simply part of their offensive philosophy.
How will the 49ers fill those slots, especially if Davis does end up holding out? Will they continue to use as many two-tight end sets, even with the influx of new talent at the receiver position? Can McDonald take a step forward in his second NFL season? Who will fill out the bottom of the depth chart?
Let’s break down the current depth chart at tight end, as we eagerly await the beginning of the 2014 season.
6. Kevin Greene
2011 (Southern Cal): 1 tackle
2012 (Southern Cal): 5 tackles
2013 (Southern Cal): 3 tackles
Rounding up the bottom of the depth chart is Kevin Greene, an undrafted free agent from Southern California—no relation to the former great linebacker.
Greene mostly played defensive end and linebacker in college and is converting to a full-time tight end in the NFL.
Greene’s actually looked decent in OTAs, with SFGate’s Kevin Lynch reporting that the 6’4”, 255-pound rookie looked "elusive" with good hands. He apparently even sidestepped a tackle from rookie linebacker Chris Borland during OTAs.
Because of his lack of experience playing the position, even at the college level, Greene’s a long shot to make the roster. It’s much more likely that he’s fighting for a position at the bottom of the practice squad. If he makes a significant impression on the coaches between now and the end of August, he could find his way to staying with the franchise. His is the longest shot, however.
5. Asante Cleveland
2011 (Miami FL): 1 reception, 6 yards, 0 touchdowns
2012 (Miami FL): 2 receptions, 12 yards, 0 touchdowns
2013 (Miami FL): 3 receptions, 23 yards, 1 touchdown
The other undrafted free-agent tight end in camp is Asante Cleveland, and he has a much better shot of stealing the third tight end slot on the final 53-man roster.
While Cleveland’s college stats do not jump out at you, it’s because he’s not a pass-catching tight end; he’s more of your traditional blocker.
A talent with good size and solid blocking skills, albeit with no speed whatsoever, Cleveland was a coveted undrafted player. Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reports that the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots were also interested in signing the tight end.
Assuming that Davis and McDonald will be the 49ers’ leading receiving tight ends, the third tight end slot will likely be filled with the best blocker they can find. Cleveland’s got a real shot at earning that spot, but his lack of NFL experience and the hamstring injury he’s fighting through currently has him at the back of that particular competition.
4. Derek Carrier
2011 (Beloit): 75 receptions, 1,250 yards, 12 touchdowns
2012 (Philadelphia): 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
Carrier has been a practice-squad player in his NFL career, first with Oakland, then with Philadelphia before finally arriving in San Francisco last season. He was activated at the end of last year, getting 42 snaps while Garrett Celek was injured.
In college, Carrier was a record-setting receiver at tiny Beloit—a three-sport star with great measurable and production, abliet against hardly any competition. He’s a tweener, still learning to play tight end, but he’s probably the most explosive of any of the third tight end candidates.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said, "He is a very interesting guy. He’s kind of a hybrid athletic tight end who has put on some weight, gotten bigger. He played against the Rams last year, held his own pretty good. So, he’s making progress.”
The one thing counting against Carrier, again, is that the third tight end will probably be used primarily as a blocker, and that’s the area Carrier is still learning. That doesn’t mean he can’t get better or won’t get better at it, just that it’s an area he needs to improve to earn a spot on the roster.
I actually think Carrier will end up winning the spot when all is said and done, but as of this moment, he is trailing on the depth chart.
3. Garrett Celek
2011 (Michigan State): 3 receptions, 35 yards, 1 touchdown
2012 (San Francisco): 4 receptions, 51 yards, 0 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 2 receptions, 38 yards, 0 touchdowns
The incumbent third tight end, Celek has the advantage going into training camp due to being more familiar with the system and offense.
Celek mostly saw playing time last season when the 49ers went into big heavy sets, with 83 of his 126 offensive snaps being in run blocking situations. As a receiver, he’s entirely unthreatening, though Roman has said he’s made some strides this offseason.
That hasn’t necessarily shown up during the OTA sessions that have been open to the media, though those are admittedly a small sample size of an already small set of performances. Matt Maiocco reported that Celek dropped a couple of passes, and he’s been spared the liberal praise that comes out in these offseason workouts.
Knowing the offense is a huge advantage over his rivals, Celek’s spot is certainly in jeopardy. If the 49ers decide to stick with a blocker, I think Celek stays ahead of Cleveland and earns the spot. If they decide to go for a more athletic player, Carrier could easily swoop in and earn the nod.
2. Vance McDonald
2011 (Rice): 43 receptions, 532 yards, 5 touchdowns
2012 (Rice): 36 receptions, 458 yards, 2 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 8 receptions, 119 yards, 0 touchdowns
McDonald came in last season with a lot of hype.
Replacing the departed Delanie Walker, McDonald was touted as a versatile, physical player, with an ideal combination of size, strength and speed. No, he’s not as athletic as Davis is, but he showed a burst with the ball in his hands. While ESPN mentioned some concern with his hands in their draft review (subscription required), they considered him a sneaky good pick.
Last season, however, McDonald underwhelmed. He saw the field on 494 snaps, but he graded out negatively in both receiving and run blocking by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). McDonald only caught 44.4 percent of passes thrown his way, dropping three passes on only 18 targets.
McDonald didn’t have enough targets to be ranked by Football Outsiders, but his limited play earned him a minus-20 DYAR, which would have slotted him 43rd in the league. His DVOA of minus-23.8 percent would have been second-worst in the league.
Suffice it to say, McDonald underwhelmed as a rookie. He needs to take a step forward in 2014. However, he’s continued to show drops even in OTAs this year. This needs to change, or this might be McDonald’s last year with the team.
He’s essentially guaranteed a roster slot based on his draft stock from last season, but he needs to show improvement on the field. He’s a huge question mark entering the 2014 season.
1. Vernon Davis
2011 (San Francisco): 67 receptions, 792 yards, 6 touchdowns
2012 (San Francisco): 41 receptions, 548 yards, 5 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 52 receptions, 850 yards, 13 touchdowns
Vernon Davis’ skill needs no introduction.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com’s approximate value stat, Davis has been the fifth-most valuable tight end in football over the past three seasons, and that doesn’t include his very good run-blocking ability. He’s a top weapon, is being paid like a top weapon and deserves to be paid like a top weapon.
That being said, he is on the wrong side of 30 and has very little leverage for his current holdout. He’s signed through 2015, he’s already one of the top-paid tight ends in the game and the 49ers don’t have an excess of cap room to spread around.
The 49ers are unlikely to have any negotiation with Davis before he reports to camp. That’s the way they handled Frank Gore’s holdout back in 2011, and Gore had more leverage than Davis has now—he was younger and entering the final year of his contract.
Gore’s holdout lasted four days, and when he came back, the 49ers gave him his extension a month later.
What's the thing that might finally force Davis to camp? His association with Fantex, a brokerage company that allows you to buy stock in a professional athlete. Davis is one of Fantex’s athletes, and that brings up a question regarding his contract.
The company gave Davis $4 million up front, and in return, they get 10 percent of Davis’ future income. Apparently, that includes money Davis is supposed to earn in 2014, even if he misses those games and those game checks, per Darren Heitner. One way or another, Fantex is going to get their money.
That means the longer Davis holds out, the more money he’s going to lose. If his financial future is as important to him as he indicated it was in his MMQB column, he has to report sooner or later, or he’ll end up losing more money than he’d get in an extension.
Davis and the 49ers will eventually come to a deal—probably something along the lines of a three-year extension. Nothing will happen until Davis returns to camp, however. I’d expect to see him back in the red and gold before the first preseason game in early August.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.