At the beginning of 2008 training camp I threw together a post about how Mike Martz had never had particularly good tight ends. I figured Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker would give Martz some great tools with which to work. So much for that idea. The "talented" 49ers tight ends finished the season with a combined 43 receptions, 547 yards and 3 touchdowns (between 2+ guys since Bajema isn't really a full receiving TE).
The blocking was there, as discussed below, but they never really seemed to get fully integrated into the offense. Of course, Walker is a converted wide receiver (like Fooch favorite Eric Johnson), Davis is not a traditional tight end and Bajema is almost exclusively a blocking tight end. So while the production was disappointing, maybe we shouldn't have been so surprised?
Vernon Davis: On July 3, I made my first "semi-rational irrational prediction" that Vernon Davis would make the Pro Bowl. Who would have thought it could very well have happened for his blocking? Davis was a beast on the line taking on some of the best pass rushers the opposing team had to offer. The problem with that is he was a high first round pick because of his supposed abilities as a pass-catcher. Nobody will question that he's a physical specimen. Unfortunately it seems like that specimen is attached to occasional alligator arms and hands of stone.
From watching the 49ers this season, I think Davis was most successful when he got the ball rather quickly and then made plays with his legs/body, instead of his hands. He's certainly made some spectacular catches deep down the field (the prime time Bengals game where he blew past a linebacker and caught a TD pass between the LB and a safety. This past season though he really impressed when he was used on screens and coming out of the backfield. He's got that rare combination of speed and physicality that he can blow past cornerbacks.
However, he was forced to stay back and block a lot more than fans would have liked. Do people think that adding a legit right tackle would make up for that? Of course, the Duke is also a bit of a knucklehead, so that doesn't help him. I really don't know if he'll ever get his act together, but if he did, he could be an absolute beast.
Delanie Walker: There are times I feel Delanie Walker is like a more successful 53-man roster version of Thomas Clayton. Fans see all this crazy potential and he's been productive in the preseason. While he's made some great plays over the course of the season, he never really became that consistent threat most of us think he could be. As was the case heading into 2008, I'm curious how the new OC will utilize Walker. When you've got a guy who can return kicks, clearly there are other ways he could be utilized on top of that.
Is Walker destined to be all hype, no production? I don't see how any of us can predict for certain that he'll break through, but we can certainly hope can't we? However, as long as he doesn't bring much of anything to the blocking game, he'll need to step up as a receiver.
Billy Bajema: Bajema had two receptions this season, which is two more than he had in the previous two years combined. Of course we all know BB is the prototypical blocking tight end and a pretty solid one at that. Of course, given his specialization and free agent status, it's a tough call whether he'll be back next season. Bajema made $927,000 as a restricted free agent. As an unrestricted free agent this year, is he worth bringing back for over $1M per year in a likely multi-year deal? A month ago I predicted he'd be gone, and nothing has dramatically changed my mind on that. Of course, maybe they go with this guy....
Sean Ryan: He was signed as a tight end but moved into an H-back role at times and I discussed him previously in our fullbacks recap. He would be a pretty inexpensive signing so maybe it's worth bringing him back for training camp. Given the youth of the 49ers other tight ends, I'd kind of prefer not wasting a pick on one. Give Ryan a shot as the third tight end and see where it takes you. Right now, that's where I'm at.
If I had it my way, I'd just re-sign Sean Ryan and see what he can do as your third tight end. He'd be cheaper than Bajema. He can catch the ball and would thus not be quite the dead giveaway Bajema tended to be at times. There is some talent in the draft pool, but the 49ers are young enough at tight end. Ryan doesn't have a lot of experience, but I think it's worth the gamble. I suppose it's not the most important spot on the roster, but it's still worth considering.