The San Francisco 49ers have been mediocre at the tight end position for several years now, ever since Vernon Davis began his decline. Delanie Walker was productive but frustrating, and ultimately moved on. Vance McDonald was a colossal waste of a draft pick and the 49ers have relied on the play of Garrett Celek, a middle-of-the-road tight end with good hands and good blocking ability.
I won’t say Celek is a blocking specialist per se, but he wasn’t exactly a heralded receiver coming out of college. Scouting reports at the time had him as a developmental player with good hands and decent blocking ability, and that’s what he ended up being.
I think the 49ers have done well with him, as he competed for a roster spot as an undrafted rookie, played behind a great tandem of Davis and Walker and now, years later, is the starter. He was an afterthought, competing with one Konrad Reuland for a roster spot, and has lasted through a lot. But he definitely has a ceiling as a receiver, and I think he’s hit it.
It cannot be overstated how much a productive, reliable tight end means to a quarterback. It’s not the sexiest position in the NFL, but one needs only to look at Jimmy Garoppolo’s former team to see how game-changing said position can be. Rob Gronkowski is the most reliable receiving target in the league as far as I’m concerned, and his presence alone has to be incredibly comforting for Tom Brady.
Celek isn’t that guy. I’m not saying the 49ers need to go out and find a Rob Gronkowski, because I don’t think that’s possible, but they need a big-bodied receiving threat for the position. They need someone that stands above everyone else, who can catch a tough pass in traffic when the situation calls for it.
Too many wide receiver routes have gone nowhere this season, or have taken too long to develop while the quarterback is getting pressured. A high-level tight end is a safety blanket, and one that Garoppolo will need going forward.
George Kittle is an intriguing player, but I’m disappointed to see that the rookie is getting barely half the snaps in recent weeks of someone like Celek. I don’t think Kittle is a lost cause or anything along those lines, but in a season where the 49ers are trying everything, it is certainly surprising that he’s getting significantly out-snapped by Celek.
I think Celek deserves to be a part of the group going forward and I think Kittle still has a lot of potential, but the 49ers need more.
The 2018 free agency class is fairly dire overall, but at tight end it has some names worth considering.
Jimmy Graham of the Seattle Seahawks never quite reached his peak with his second team, but he is a very reliable target and could be intriguing. Tyler Eifert has a bad injury history, but if the 49ers really like Celek and Kittle like they seem to, rolling the dice on someone with Eifert’s playmaking skills could pay off in a big way. If he got hurt again, the 49ers would be back where they started: good at times and mediocre at others.
As far as the NFL Draft goes, there are some names worth considering. Hayden Hurst out of South Carolina, Mark Andrews of Oklahoma and Aldton Schultz of Stanford being my top three, but we’ll talk more about draft prospects when we get into offseason mode.
For now, it’s just something to consider. I like Celek, but he shouldn’t be the top tight end on the depth chart. The 49ers need to find a way to improve the position while making effort to surround Garoppolo with high-level talent going forward.