We rank the top tight end prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft and look at who the 49ers may target at the position.
Fooch's Note: Consider this an off-topic opportunity to blow off some steam if you're playoff'd out for the day.
When Jim Harbaugh was introduced as the new 49ers head coach on January 7, 2011, he made it clear that the tight end position would be a fixture in his west coast offense. Harbaugh's philosophy dates back to his youth, where his father was an assistant coach to Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Schembechler ran a lot of two tight end sets and jumbo packages that have been the inspiration of some 49ers plays. The tight end position will continue to be an important one in the Niners offense as long as Harbaugh is coach, so it'll be important for a long time.
Vernon Davis has had an up and down year, but he'll be the number one tight end next season and for years to come (signed through 2015). Delanie Walker will be a free agent at the end of this season. Whether he will be re-signed or not remains to be seen. Walker has shown he's a great blocker, and a speedy tight end who can get open. The only downside with Delanie is he also drops a good chunk of the balls thrown his way.
Number three tight end Garret Celek might be the odd man out next season. Celek has been a good blocker at times this year, and by all accounts seems to be a hard worker, but the 49ers can find someone better than him in the draft. Celek has shown no separation when he's been called upon to run routes. He just isn't a receiving threat (four receptions this season, 14 receptions in college).
The 49ers could possibly be looking at replacing two tight ends. If Walker re-signs, a tight end will still be drafted or added in undrafted free agency to compete with Celek.
Here are my top prospects at tight end:
1. Tyler Eifert 6-5 252 lbs- Notre Dame Stock: Steady Projection: 1st Round
2. Zach Ertz 6-6 252 lbs- Stanford Stock- Rising Projection: 2nd
3.Travis Kelce 6-5 260 lbs-Cincinnati Stock: Rising Projection:2nd-3rd
4.Jordan Reed 6-3 243 lbs- Florida Stock: Falling (Bad Sugar Bowl) Projection: Late 2nd/3rd
5.Ryan Otten 6-5 245 lbs- San Jose State Stock: Rising Projection: 3-4
6. Dion Sims 6-5 285 lbs- Michigan State Stock: Steady Projection: 3-4
7.Gavin Escobar 6-5 255 lbs- San Diego State Stock: Steady Projection: 4
8. Chris Gragg 6-3 236 lbs- Arkansas Stock: Steady Projection: 4-5
9. Michael Williams 6-5 272 lbs- Alabama Stock: Rising Projection:Late 4th-Early 5th
10.Levine Toilolo 6-7 265 lbs- Stanford Stock: Rising Projection: 5-6
The 49ers have needs that rank higher on the list than tight end, but Baalke and Harbaugh have shown they care about talent first, need second. It makes it hard to figure out where exactly a tight end will be drafted by the 49ers. If Delanie isn't retained, the earlier the 49ers are likely to draft a tight end. If the 49ers think a player has tremendous talent, they may draft him earlier anyway regardless of Delanie. No other team knows exactly what Baalke and company are thinking, and that's what makes this team one of the most interesting ones to follow on draft day.
On the top ten, you see two Stanford Cardinal tight ends, two players Jim Harbaugh knows very well (recruited both). Zach Ertz will be drafted in the second round, and I doubt he falls far enough in the second for the 49ers to grab him. Levine Toilolo could be an interesting option in the later rounds of the draft if he's on the board when the Niners are on the clock. They don't come much taller than Toilolo in football at 6-7. Although he needs to be developed further, Toilolo could turn out to be a fine NFL player. Harbaugh and staff aren't afraid to develop a player, and that's why a guy like Levine or another raw player with good attributes could make sense.
Number five on my list, Ryan Otten, could be an option as well,. The more film I've watched of Otten, the more I like him. Otten gets open, a lot. Otten has really good hands too, along with some good route running. I view Otten as a good number two tight end and possibly good number one if developed. Otten needs to improve on his blocking, as he needs to block with more power at the next level. Besides that, I like everything I've seen from the San Jose State product. Otten is projected to go in the third or fourth round and drafting him would make more sense if Delanie isn't re-signed. Otten will be playing in the Senior Bowl.
Number eight on the list, Chris Gragg, also could be a Walker replacement. Gragg has great speed for a tight end, and speed at tight end can kill. His blocking appears to be decent, and I think he has the necessary strength. Gragg appears to have decent hands but occasionally will drop a catchable pass. He could benefit from 49ers coaching and could be groomed into a good tight end in the NFL. Gragg also would line up at fullback for Arkansas at times. The 49ers could be compelled to draft a speedy guy who can play multiple positions in multiple formations.
All the "just missed" players aren't slouches, either. One of them could be a steal when we look back at this draft in a year or two. You can catch Zach Sudfeld and Joseph Fauria in the East-West Shrine game,. Sudfeld, 6-7, had eight touchdowns this season, while Fauria, 6-7, had twelve. Both players are big targets and if the 49ers don't take a tight end going into the sixth round, either player could be a realistic draft pick.
Other players I mentioned who are appearing in the Senior Bowl are Michael Williams, Travis Kelce, and Vance McDonald.
All in all, a lot of tight ends to choose from. Who would you like to see the 49ers take?