The tight end position has been an important part of the San Francisco 49ers‘ offense under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and during his first two seasons coaching the team they had one of the best pairings in the NFL.
From 2011 to 2012, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker combined for 1,882 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. The tandem provided match-up problems for defenses and opened up other avenues in the passing game.
When Walker’s contract expired at the end of the 2012 season, it was inevitable that another team would come calling and view him has a No. 1 option (something he would never be playing behind Davis). Sure enough, Walker signed with the Tennessee Titans and left the 49ers with a void at the second tight end position.
While the team invested a second-round draft pick in Vance McDonald from Rice University in 2013, his first season was a disappointment. McDonald only caught eight passes and failed to make more than one reception in any single game. By the end of the year, he was an afterthought in the offense as he was only targeted three times over the last eight games.
It’s possible San Francisco still believes that McDonald can make an impact, but they should bring in some insurance regardless. It would benefit the team to take a flyer on a free agent tight end.
Two names they should consider are Owen Daniels and Dustin Keller.
Daniels, an eight-year veteran, has three seasons of 60 receptions or more and has scored 29 career touchdowns. He suffered a broken leg in 2013 and only appeared in five games for the Houston Texans, but when healthy he’s a reliable option who would give quarterback Colin Kaepernick another outlet in the passing game.
As for Keller, he suffered an ACL tear in the preseason after signing a one-year deal with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. He is on track to return this upcoming season and could provide a bargain for the 49ers.
Keller averaged 53 receptions and 640 yards a season with the New York Jets from 2008 to 2011. While his knee would be a concern, it shouldn’t cost San Francisco much in terms of salary or years to bring him on board. Keller would be a low-risk, high-reward option on a one-year deal.