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49ers still have major question marks at tight end

Al Sacco
May 4, 2017 at 8:01 AM3


Brick by brick. That's the slogan invoked by new San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch as the rebuild of the talent-starved roster he inherited begins. With so many holes throughout the position groups, improving the personnel isn't something that can be done in one offseason, which is why the methodical one brick at a time mantra seems so on point. The process will take a while, and some parts of the team will look better than others until a balance is (hopefully) achieved on both sides of the ball. Even with the significant turnover we've seen over the past few months, there are still some spots in the lineup that stick out like a sore thumb. One example of that is the depth chart at tight end.

It wasn't long ago that the 49ers had arguably the best stable of tight ends in the league, as Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker gave the offense a versatile pairing that caused matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. Unfortunately, the team let Walker test the market in free agency, and were unwilling to pay him top dollar with Davis already having such a large contract. To its credit, the front office did see a need to replace Walker and also get an heir apparent to the aging Davis, and attempted to prepare for the future by selecting Vance McDonald in the second-round of the 2013 draft. Unfortunately, that hasn't worked out too well.

Over four seasons in the NFL, McDonald's caught 64 balls for 866 yards and seven scores. Those are numbers you'd hope for from a prolific tight end in a single season, not over a four-year stretch. What's more frustrating is former general manager Trent Baalke selected McDonald over the likes of Travis Kelce and Jordan Reed, both of whom were taken in the third-round that year. Kelce and Reed each had more catches in 2016 alone than McDonald has in his entire career. When you also consider that McDonald has trouble holding onto to the football, his prospects of ever being a top-flight tight end look even more bleak.

Somehow, despite his lack of production, McDonald managed to get a contract extension at the end of last season from Baalke. How management signed off on Baalke extending anyone while he was clearly on this way out is beyond me, but now the Niners are on the hook for a $7.7 million cap hit this season, and $4.2 million in 2018. It's no wonder the new regime is said to be exploring trade options for him.

What I found interesting, though, was trying to imagine what the plan was/is should a trade for McDonald come to fruition. Holdovers Garrett Celek and Blake Bell aren't starting material, and their futures in San Francisco seems questionable at best. Celek has only 56 catches in five seasons, and Bell has barely seen the field thus far. Celek did sign a four-year $10 million deal in 2016, but his cap hit would be low enough ($1.8 million) that the Niners could part ways with him if need be. The team did sign Logan Paulsen to a one-year contract this offseason, but he's more of a blocking specialist and doesn't appear to be in any long-term plans.

So how will the Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan manage the position in 2017? If the team can't trade McDonald, I think he'll get a chance to prove himself, but don't count out rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini seeing a number of snaps throughout the campaign. Kittle was an underrated prospect who was one of the best blocking tight ends in the draft. He allowed only one quarterback pressure over his last two collegiate seasons, and Pro Football Focus had him rated as one of the top run blockers among draft-eligible players at his position. When you add in his versatility in the passing game, you can see multiple ways he can make an impact in Shanahan's offense.

As far as Hikutini, he could very well end up being the prize of the undrafted free agents who have been brought in. Hikutini's stock dropped because of an injury that kept him out of action late in the year, and caused his workouts to suffer leading up to the draft. His play on the field was solid for Louisville though, as he caught passes for 668 yards and scored eight touchdowns. He has the ability to develop into a solid pass catching option, and has a real chance to make the team.

Another wildcard in all of this is Kyle Juszczyk. The fullback/offensive weapon will be used in a variety of roles, and you have to wonder if Shanahan will split him out wide in some passing situations in place of someone like McDonald. Shanahan is very creative in how he deploys his personnel, and taking advantage of the versatility of someone like Juszczyk will be fun to watch.

In all honesty, tight end looks like it will end up being a roster spot that's in transition over the next year or so. While newcomers like Kittle and Hikutini could step up and make an impact, odds are the starting tight end of the future isn't on the team yet. You can bet the Niners' brass understands this as well, and will make the position a priority next offseason. In the meantime, the franchise will have to hope one of the incumbents can step forward and make the coaching staff take notice, forcing his way into the franchise's long-term plans.

Al Sacco has been covering the 49ers since 2013 and has had his work used by national outlets such as ESPN and USA TODAY. In addition to his writing duties, Al is also the co-host of the No Huddle podcast presented by 49ers Webzone. If you'd like to reach Al with a media request, please contact him via Twitter @AlSacco49
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


3 Comments

  • matt111
    Vance McDonald is garbage. All that speed potential just couldn't translate to production in the game. Baalke signed him to a huge $35 million contract extension was a flat out scam! You have to wonder if there's any kickback money involved - the league should investigate.
    May 5, 2017 at 10:21 AM
    0
  • mbniner
    McDonald started to flash his ability at the end of last season with a couple of long TD receptions. He is a very fast TE. I think that Kittle is similar player. Both are excellent blockers with very good speed. A 2 TE set with those two would present defenses with a big problem and Shanahan with a lot of options. I also think that Hikuniti looks promising. That leaves Celek and Bell to battle for a roster spot, assuming they go with 4 TEs. With Juszcyk's versatility we may only keep 3.
    May 4, 2017 at 1:16 PM
    2
  • Mike Hammer
    Gary Barnidge is available.
    May 4, 2017 at 8:57 AM
    1

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