The San Francisco 49ers tight end depth chart features a notable change this season, with Bruce Miller converting there from tight end. The team moved on from Vernon Davis last year, and returns Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, and Blake Bell as the three most notable experienced tight ends. Miller has plenty of experience in the NFL, but he is still making a position change.
Last week, a writer at RotoViz.com put together a breakdown of why Vance McDonald is "the breakout tight end no one seems to care about." The departure of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, coupled with the infusion of Chip Kelly's passing game opens the door for one or more pass catchers to break out this season. The author, Curtis Patrick, opens by looking at McDonald's measurables coming out of college. He ranked highly across the board compared to a notable tight end class that included Zach Ertz, Tyler Eifert, Travis Kelce, Gavin Escobar, and Jordan Reed.
Patrick then goes into the opportunities available in the 49ers passing game. He talks down many of the 49ers crop of pass catchers, understandably, and looks at McDonald's splits after Vernon Davis was traded. They project out fairly well from a purely fantasy perspective, so I can see why he might get excited.
However, there are two particular issues to consider. The first is McDonald's hands. The words hands and drop are not mentioned once in the article. That has been a continuing issue for McDonald, and if it continues he could find himself losing those starting snaps. It can't be ignored.
The other issue is Bruce Miller. Although Miller is only two months into a transition from fullback to tight end, Matt Barrows reported he got some early work with the first team in 11-on-11 drills. That doesn't mean he will claim the starting tight end job, but it is notable. And while Miller was not a star receiver out of the backfield, he was a very capable pass catcher. Among players with 10-24 passes directed their way last season, Miller ranked 8th in DYAR at Football Outsiders. He likely has plenty to learn as a tight end, but it's certainly not the same transition as he made from defensive end to fullback.
The 49ers passing game could see DeAndre Smelter, Eric Rogers, Quinton Patton, or other receivers emerge to replace Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis' catches. Other tight ends could do it as well. Or the offense could be a complete train wreck. But I'm kind of intrigued by the idea of Bruce Miller as a tight end option in fantasy football. He'd be a flier guy in the last few rounds, or maybe even just a free agent pick-up, but he's intriguing.
Vance McDonald is the more physically gifted tight end, but the drops remain a huge problem. Blake Bell is intriguing given some of his own physical attributes, but the former quarterback also only has two years (one college, one NFL) of tight end experience. Garrett Celek got a vote of confidence with the contract extension, but his ceiling has felt fairly limited thus far. He showed some things when Blaine Gabbert took over, but we'll need to see that for a full year, and he needs to stay healthy for the season.
There are certainly critiques about Miller. But given his experience at fullback and getting work in receiving roles, I think Miller will be the one to watch at the tight end position.