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Do the 49ers need a tight end in free agency?

We review the 49ers’ tight end position from 2017. Do they need to upgrade from George Kittle and Garrett Celek?

Before the start of the NFL free agency period, we’re going to look at various positions on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster to determine a few things. The first is whether or not the position improved from 2016 to 2017. The second is to see if free agency is a viable option to improve the position — if it’s even needed.

Season in review

Today, we’re going to talk about the tight ends. George Kittle led all tight ends with 34 catches for 515 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Garrett Celek was second among tight ends with 21 receptions for 336 yards and four touchdowns. Cole Hikutini caught both passes thrown his way for 15 yards.

Despite “Celek Time” being a thing down the stretch, especially with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, Kittle is the future of the position. Celek is a remarkable player — he was once in a three-way battle for the third spot on the tight end depth chart. He’ll never be an amazing receiver, but he’s shown to be clutch in the red zone and will be valuable going forward.

Kittle, a fifth-round pick by John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan, showed some serious promise. He played on 592 offensive snaps, or 53.82 percent, and also saw action on special teams six times. Celek was right behind Kittle with 560 offensive snaps, or 50.91 percent, but also played on 228 of special teams snaps, or 49.14 percent.

The big problem: Kittle was responsible for five dropped passes, officially, and in my own film review I pegged at least two other plays as misjudging the placement of the ball on Kittle’s part. Kittle played in 15 games, and there were several where he didn’t perform well. Kittle recorded 20 yards or less on six separate occasions.

His best game was the season finale, where he caught four passes for 100 yards. Prior to that, he posted yardage totals of 42 and 52 yards, so he finished the year strong. He had 83 yards and a touchdown in an early-season game against the Indianapolis Colts. Celek’s production also came in the second half of the season, with three separate 60-plus yardage games.

Here’s a look at the way the position changed from 2016 to 2017:

2016 Week 17: Garrett Celek, Je’Ron Hamm, Jim Dray, Vance McDonald (IR), Blake Bell (IR)
2017 Week 1: George Kittle, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, Cole Hikutini
Current: George Kittle, Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen, Cole Hikutini (IR), Cole Wick (PS)

It’s worth noting, of course, that the starting depth chart for 2016 was McDonald, Celek and Bell, but both McDonald and Bell were eventually placed on inured reserve. Wick is a practice squader currently signed to a reserve/futures contract.

The market for tight ends

We’re going to take a deeper look at the various positions and free agents available in a separate series. For now, here’s a quick and dirty list of the top tight ends set to hit the open market.

Trey Burton, Philadelphia Eagles
Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, New York Jets
Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
Cameron Brate, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (RFA)
Virgil Green, Denver Broncos
Antonio Gates, Los Angeles Chargers
Ben Watson, Baltimore Ravens
Anthony Fasano, Miami Dolphins
Zach Miller, Chicago Bears
Lee Smith, Oakland Raiders
Ed Dickson, Carolina Panthers
Niles Paul, Washington NFL Team
Luke Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Darren Fells, Detroit LLions
Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals

As far as the market goes, I can only see someone like Eifert being attractive to the 49ers. He’s a boom-or-bust player, with No. 1 tight end ability. The 49ers have the cap space to burn if he gets hurt, and Kittle to continue starting as well. But it’s just a thought — it’s probably not a position that will be addressed in free agency, save for replacing or re-signing Logan Paulsen for depth.