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49ers 2012 Free Agency Review: Tight Ends

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Today we move to a position of strength for the 49ers as we take a look at the tight ends that spent time on the 49ers roster in 2011. This was kind of a bizarre year for the 49ers tight end position. In hiring Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers were bringing in a coach that loved his tight ends at Stanford. The Cardinal used two and three tight ends fairly consistently, and to great success.

In 2011, the 49ers went to two and three tight end sets quite frequently. Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are known for their receiving skills, but both have developed into incredibly solid blockers for the team. Two of my favorite plays this season were when Delanie Walker placed strong blocks on Ndamukong Suh to spring Frank Gore for a pair of big gains.

The 49ers went with two tight ends in their base offense, which allowed them to get Walker and Davis on the field fairly consistently. They went with Justin Peelle as the third tight end after second year tight end Nate Byham went down with a torn ACL in training camp. The 49ers have Vernon Davis locked up through 2015, Delanie Walker through 2012, and Nate Byham through 2013. Justin Peelle is a free agent this year.

After the jump, we'll take a look at the individual players and how their seasons played out, and then ask you how you feel about the position going forward.

Vernon Davis

The 49ers charismatic leading tight end had what can best be described as an up and down season. It seemed at times like the 49ers coaching staff was struggling with how best to utilize the versatile tight end. Davis brings a combination of speed and power that can matchup with most any tight end in the NFL. Alex Smith has often looked to him as the team has moved down towards the end zone, with the seam route being one of their most prominent plays in recent seasons.

And yet, 2011 saw Vernon Davis all over the place in terms of weekly production. He did have his share of drops, which remains a bit of an issue at times, but there were also times where it just seemed like the 49ers were not looking his way on offense.

And then the postseason happened. Davis had his two biggest games of the year, and really two of the biggest games of his life when it mattered most. He had two bad penalties in the Giants game, with the personal foul being particularly bizarre. The penalties didn't hurt the team from a production standpoint (they got a first down after the roughing penalty before eventually punting), but they were just not the things team leaders need to be doing. Well, the roughing one was particularly stupid, but the celebration after his big touchdown was over the top.

Nonetheless, those two games showed exactly what Vernon is capable of and has me scratching my head to a certain extent about the regular season when the offense sputtered at times.

Receiving Kickoff Returns Punt Returns
G Rec Yds Y/G AVG Lng TD KR YDS AVG Lng TD PR Yds Avg Lng TD
16 67 792 49.5 11.8 44 6 0 0 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Delanie Walker

The 49ers number two tight end had arguably his best season as a pro in the Harbaugh/Roman offense. While his receptions and yardage numbers were down, he had a career-high three touchdowns, and received as much playing time as any previous point in his career. The 49ers went to a base two tight end set that allowed them to keep defenses on their toes with the receiving/blocking skills of both tight ends.

This was sort of a tale of two seasons once Walker went down with his broken jaw in the Seahawks game. The 49ers beat the Rams and Saints without Walker, but one has to wonder if Walker was completely 100% for the Giants game. He had a pair of receptions, but a knowingly 100% Walker remains one of the small what if's of this magical season.

We have discussed plenty of issues related to the 49ers need for a wide receiver, but having Davis and Walker put the 49ers in a position where they might not feel the need to overload at the wide receiver position. Walker played wide receiver in college and we know Davis has the speed and size to split out wide on occasion. However, there are enough times where the team does not seem to utilize these two huge weapons nearly enough given their talents. How best can they utilize Walker and Davis to optimize their skills?

Receiving Kickoff Returns Punt Returns
G Rec Yds Y/G AVG Lng TD KR YDS AVG Lng TD PR Yds Avg Lng TD
13 19 198 15.2 10.4 29 3 0 0 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Justin Peelle

He had a quiet year receiving, but was a solid enough third tight end when it came to blocking. When Walker went down, Peelle moved into the number two spot, and given the 49ers use of multiple tight ends, it led to a sizable increasing in playing time.

Peelle is unlikely to be back in 2012 given the return of Nate Byham and the competition Konrad Reuland will likely bring to the position in training camp. It is possible he could get a chance to compete given his year in the system, but I would be a little surprised.

Receiving Kickoff Returns Punt Returns
G Rec Yds Y/G AVG Lng TD KR YDS AVG Lng TD PR Yds Avg Lng TD
4 1 19 4.8 19.0 19 0 0 0 0.0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Nate Byham

The 49ers sixth round pick in 2010 tore his ACL early in training camp and never really had a chance to show his stuff for the new coaching staff. He will likely enter 2012 training camp as the leading candidate for the number three tight end role. Given the prominence of power formations, Byham will get a lot of opportunities to get on the field in 2012 if he wins the role.

Konrad Reuland

The former Stanford tight end spent much of the season on the practice squad. Barring a huge step forward that moves him past Byham, I think Reuland ends up getting waived late in training camp with the team hopeful he clears waivers and can end up back on the practice squad.