Coach Kyle Shanahan makes sure to use tight ends, so business should be picking up for Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek, two of the 49ers’ longest tenured players.
But with injuries often hindering them the past few seasons, the 49ers might want to dip into the draft for a prospect they can groom.
If the 49ers really want a bigger play-maker to make an immediate impact, the best available is Alabama product O.J. Howard, who figures to go early in the first round, though perhaps not as early as No. 2, where the 49ers sit and haven’t shown significant interest.
All that said, McDonald and Celek are seemingly entrenched as potential starters, and both received contract extensions last year. However, they’ve been injury prone, and they’ve combined for just 13 touchdown catches the past two seasons — or the same number Vernon Davis had in 2013.
McDonald and Celek could get more action at receivers while blocking chores are picked up by free-agent acquisition Logan Paulsen. The 49ers will want more than three tight ends, and any draft prospects would likely be competing to snag roster spots from Blake Bell and Je’Ron Hamm.
The Top Five
1. O,J. Howard, Alabama (6-6, 251) — Under-utlized as a target by Lane Kiffin, Howard exploded in two national championship games with nine combined catches for 314 yards. The good news at the next level is that Howard played in a pro style system and should transition quickly as a receiver. Has the length to be a good blocker, but not yet polished.
2. David Njoku, Miami (6-4, 246) — A big-play, downfield threat who once jumped a national best 6-11 in a high school track meet. A spectacular athlete that still has a lot to learn about football, Njoku caught 43 passes for 698 yards and eight scores despite only five starts and sharing the position. Blocking skills need refining.
3. Adam Shaheen, Ashland (6-6, 278) — Former basketball player with Division II Pittsburgh-Johnstown transferred following 2014 season to play football instead. With enormous frame and obvious skills, Shaheen improved each season and as a senior had 16 touchdown receptions among his 57 receptions. Athletic enough to move about the field but size translates to more of an in-line tight end.
4. Evan Engram, Mississippi (6-3, 234) — More of a Michael Rivera-type who can create mismatches while flexed, Engram probably will never have the girth to be a traditional in-line tight end. Caught 65 passes for 928 yards and eight touchdowns. Averaged 17.4 yards per reception as a sophomore. Reports indicate issues with posting up and working back to the ball.
5. Gerald Everett, South Alabama (6-3, 239) — Has bounced from community college to Alabama-Birmingham before finally landing at South Alabama. Had 49 catches for 717 yards as a senior. Another player who fits the mold of a receiving tight end rather than as an in-line blocker.
Keep an eye on: Jake Butt, Michigan (6-5, 246) –Tore his right ACL in Orange Bowl, which will slow Butt’s rise. Has the classic old-style block-and-catch tight end skills and was a favorite of coach Jim Harbaugh. It helps that Butt was schooled in an NFL style system at Michigan.
Others: Jordan Leggett, Clemson (6-5, 258), George Kittle, Iowa (6-4, 247), Jonnu Smith, Florida International (6-3, 248), Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech (6-6, 257).
Depth chart: Vance McDonald (6-4, 267), Garrett Celek (6-5, 252), Logan Paulsen (6-5, 268), Blake Bell (6-6, 252), Je’Ron Hamm (6-3, 236), Kyle Nelson (6-2, 240).
Last five drafted: Blake Bell (fourth round, Oklahoma, 2015), Busta Anderson (seventh round, South Carolina, 2015), Vance McDonald (second round, Rice, 2013), Nate Byham (sixth round, Pittsburgh, 2010), Bear Pascoe (sixth round, Fresno State, 2009).