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San Francisco 49ers 2014 roster review: Tight ends

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We begin our position-by-position review of the 49ers' 2014 season with the tight ends, featuring Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In the past, we've done a feature here called "Long Look Back, Brief Look Forward." The idea was to take a look at a given position, break it down by player, how it looked and do a brief look ahead to free agency and the NFL Draft. Last year, we did something similar with a roster review, without some of the things from the original posts. We're going to combine the two this year and I've decided, arbitrarily, that we'll start with the tight end position.

Obviously, the tight end position hasn't necessarily been used effectively in recent seasons when it comes to the 49ers. Even in years where it seems like San Francisco's tight ends are able to contribute effectively, the 49ers always limit their potential in gameplanning. It wasn't too long ago that we were talking about Vernon Davis being kept in to block too often, insisting that he was a weapon that needed to be used in the passing game.

Last year though, I'm not sure there was anything the 49ers could have done differently. The tight ends simply stunk up the place. Let's dive right into it with, of course, the aforementioned Davis.

Vernon Davis - 14 games, 26 receptions (50 targets), 245 yards, 2 touchdowns

Davis was, in a word, bad. After spending the offseason complaining about his contract and concentrating on growing his "brand" as a football player, Davis was abysmal on the field this past season. Some might say that he wasn't targeted nearly enough, but those who spent time going over coaches' film know that there weren't exactly a ton of opportunities in which he was open and Colin Kaepernick didn't make the throw.

He wasn't a guy who was kept in to block in every play or a guy that was ignored by his quarterback. He was a guy who rarely did his job effectively over the course of 14 games. When passes did go his way, Davis showed the same maddening tendencies that have only gotten worse over the past few seasons. You know the ones -- he'll jump for balls that don't require jumps, trying to catch them with his chest. The balls he does need a jump to get to are ignored totally.

I can't say that Davis didn't try last season. That would imply knowledge I can't possibly have and I respect him and what he's done in the past enough to know that wasn't the case. Whatever it was, Davis just wasn't on his game last season. He put up pitiful yardage numbers, pitiful touchdown numbers but was solid as a blocker. I don't know if he's done and this is the end for him or not, but it was a good, good thing for the 49ers to hold fast and not cave in to his demands earlier in the year.

2015 status: Final year of contract, $4.35 million base salary, $6.97 million cap hit

Vance McDonald - 8 games, 2 receptions (7 targets), 30 yards

Vance McDonald, a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, has not done anything significant with the team in two seasons. He's played in 23 total games, but just eight of them last season before being placed on injured reserve. He's shown a tendency to drop balls and isn't exactly a sharp route-runner. In his rookie season, I thought he was pretty poor as a blocker, on top of that.

Fortunately, the blocking improved quite a bit last season. Once McDonald picks up steam, he's particularly effective blocker, looking more like a tight end than a fullback. Originally, he was thought to fit that Rob Gronkowski mold of big-bodied, pass-catching tight end but that has not panned out in any kind of form. I imagine he'll get another opportunity next season, but there's no chance the 49ers can depend on him to be the starter or anything along those lines.

2015 status: $680,000 base salary, $981,000 cap hit

Derek Carrier - 11 games, 9 receptions (14 targets), 105 yards

Carrier found his way onto the roster after a short training camp battle against Garrett Celek. Carrier has a lot more potential as a receiver than Celek, but ultimately the battle didn't matter as Celek was placed on the physically unable to perform list. Carrier was active plenty this past season, but it's honestly difficult to get a real idea of what the 49ers even think of him. He was a wide receiver in college and has a ton of potential in that vein, but his skills as a blocker leave something to be desired.

2015 status: Final year of contract, $585,000 base salary and cap hit

Garrett Celek - 3 games, 2 receptions (2 targets), 53 yards

Celek is pretty much a pure blocker at this point. He entered the offseason as the 49ers third tight end but, as noted above, lost out to Carrier when he went on the PUP list. He's a blocker, with little upside as a receiver. I'm not sure where he stands at this point, though I imagine he'll be a camp body at the very least.

2015 status: Restricted free agent

Asante Cleveland - 6 games, Xavier Grimble - 0 games

Cleveland was competing for the third tight end role, but only saw his promotion to the 53-man roster when there were injuries, and he was after all of the guys listed above. He played primarily on special teams for the 49ers. At this point, he's got as much a shot as anyone given we have no idea what the position will look like. Grimble was a late-season addition and he didn't see any playing time.

2015 status: Cleveland - $510,000 base salary and cap hit | Grimble - $435,000 base salary and cap hit

Looking ahead

It's safe to say that most of us have no idea how the 49ers feel about the tight end position going forward. They can save over $4 million in cap space by releasing Davis, but if he's a guy that can produce next season, he's probably worth the money. If 2014 was some kind of anomaly and he's going to bounce back, then the 49ers definitely need him. Nobody currently on the roster looks starting-caliber, and the free agent market, while strong, is weakest at the tight end position.

Anyway, here's a quick look at the top tight ends on the market this offseason, though I doubt the 49ers can afford someone like, say, the first guy:

Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns
Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals
Virgil Green, Denver Broncos
Niles Paul, Washington
Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams
Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals
Ed Dickson, Carolina Panthers
Owen Daniels, Baltimore Ravens

Then there's the NFL Draft. I haven't done a whole bunch of research on the top tight ends coming out, but I've taken a look at a few. What I've been able to figure out looking at the wide receivers and tight ends is that there could be an absence of notable receivers when the 49ers pick, and if trading down is a possibility I honestly think drafting a tight end early could happen.

Below, I've copied a list from SB Nation's Dan Kadar, who posts rankings regularly through the season and offseason. These rankings are from November, and thus do not include Maxx Williams, a redshirt sophomore. But it's still a good idea of where to start if you want to research some of these guys. Our own guys will be ranking the tight ends in the coming days, prior to the NFL Combine.

1. Clive Walford | 6'4, 258 pounds | TE | Miami
2. Jesse James | 6'7, 254 pounds | TE | Penn State *
3. Jeff Heuerman | 6'5, 255 pounds | TE | Ohio State
4. Nick O'Leary | 6'3, 247 pounds | TE | Florida State
5. E.J. Bibbs | 6'3, 264 pounds | TE | Iowa State
6. Ben Koyack | 6'5, 254 pounds | TE | Notre Dame
7. Jean Sifrin | 6'7, 250 pounds | TE | Massachusetts *
8. Pharaoh Brown | 6'6, 250 pounds | TE | Oregon *
9. A.J. Derby | 6'5, 255 pounds | TE | Arkansas
10. Tyler Kroft | 6'6, 240 pounds | TE | Rutgers *
11. Kivon Cartwright | 6'4, 245 pounds | TE | Colorado State
12. Rory Anderson | 6'5, 227 pounds | TE | South Carolina