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49ers post-free agency position review: Tight end

The 49ers keep trying new things, and nothing seems to be working at the tight end position.

The San Francisco 49ers have been without a difference-making tight end since Vernon Davis was in his prime. His “prime” was actually a moving target as it took Mike Singletary benching him and relegating him to the locker room to get something positive out of him. But in the end, Davis provided a whole lot that the 49ers now sorely miss.

San Francisco drafted Vance McDonald early on and expected him to take over for Davis and Delanie Walker, but that hasn’t happened. McDonald is still on the roster, and was given a lucrative contract extension in December for reasons nobody can accurately explain.

McDonald was joined by Garrett Celek, Blake Bell and Jim Dray on the roster last season. What they had, ultimately, was a group of decent blockers with good size but limited route-running ability and hands. McDonald led the group with 391 receiving yards a season ago. Celek led the way with 29 receptions.

They were not an impressive group.

Free Agency

Dray has not been retained, which isn’t surprising. They originally signed Dray when Bell was placed on injured reserve in December 2016. He was just a body to have around and he’s not a factor in their future plans.

What the 49ers did do was sign Logan Paulsen to a one-year deal, and expressed interest in Martellus Bennett. That interest was always a pipe dream though, as Bennett went elsewhere. Paulsen is a veteran who has always filled the blocking role. There were times that teams felt he could be a productive receiver, but it never really panned out.

His career high in catches — 28 — came in 2013 and his career high in yardage — 308 — came in 2012. Last season, he caught just three passes for 15 yards.

Going Forward

Well, McDonald is under contract with the team for the foreseeable future as he signed a baffling contract extension in December. It’s really unclear why he got the extension given the future of those in charge was murky at best at the time, and general manager Trent Baalke was eventually ousted.

Celek is also under contract after an extension prior to the 2016 season, while Bell is still on his rookie deal for the next two seasons. Bell converted to tight end from quarterback and there is still some hope that he can show something big, but this is probably his last chance at it, realistically.

Paulsen is on a one-year deal. The 49ers have four tight ends on the roster going forward and I would be surprised if they didn’t add at least a late-round rookie to the mix. A high-round rookie is also a possibility, but tight ends were not big in Kyle Shanahan’s offense a season ago.

Then again, Shanahan didn’t really have the personnel to work with. The 49ers don’t, either, but perhaps he wants that personnel? They don’t have the receivers or running backs that the Atlanta Falcons did, but the 49ers did bring in Kyle Juszczyk, who could fill something of a tight end role for at least a large portion of the time.

Below we’re going to look at a few tight ends to pay attention to in this year’s draft. This is only a look at a handful of high-round guys mixed with a handful of late-round guys I’m interested in. It’s not a definitive list and if you have any guys you especially like, let us know in the comments!

NFL Draft

O.J. Howard, Alabama: The consensus top tight end in the class, Howard has the size and athleticism to be a mismatch and was productive in Alabama’s offense. He has a ton of speed, and is a great route-runner already. He impressed during the Senior Bowl and won’t make it out of the first round.

David Njoku, Miami: This year’s “this guy is basically Vernon Davis,” Njoku has all the athleticism in the world. He’s a dangerous receiver and creates huge mismatches, and I think a team will take him in the first round. His quarterback, Brad Kaaya, wasn’t great and Njoku could really shine in the NFL. Or he could bust out completely!

Gerald Everett, South Alabama: Everett has improved every season in college and is a great receiving option. He had 648 yards and four touchdowns last season. He gets a lot of comparisons to Jordan Reed and I totally see it. He’s quite polished for a rookie tight end, and should find himself going in the first three rounds.

Evan Engram, Ole Miss: Another player often compared to Reed, Engram totaled 65 receptions for 926 yards and eight touchdowns a season ago. He’s a fast receiver, runs good routes and has good hands. Unfortunately, he isn’t a great blocker and will have a learning curve there. But ultimately, he’s my favorite tight end in the draft and could be around in the third round.

Adam Shaheen, Ashland: Another hyper-athletic Vernon Davis-like, Shaheen caught 57 passes for 867 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2016. He’s a matchup nightmare, and should be around in the third round.

Eric Saubert, Drake: He’s not much of a blocker, but has good speed and size. He’s a matchup problem for most linebackers but has some developing still to come.

George Kittie, Iowa: He impressed at the scouting combine and I like him quite a lot because he played in a rushing offense. He’s overlooked, and is one of my sleeper picks in the draft. He caught 22 passes for 314 yards as a senior with Iowa.

Pharaoh Brown, Oregon: Injuries have been a problem for Brown and given the 49ers’ recent draft history, I’m a little nervous about that. Other than that though, Brown is a massive player and is also quite fast. He caught 33 passes for 426 yards and five touchdowns a season ago and should go in the back rounds of the draft.