The 49ers will have some decisions to make at the position of tight end this offseason. Although they already have a super star on one end with Vernon Davis, the league appears to be relying heavily on two-tight end sets; as a matter of fact, it’s the 49ers and Jim Harbaugh playing trend-setter. Delanie Walker will be sought after in free agency, easy drops be damned.
BASG already made his case for why San Francisco should resign Walker, and it’s important for me to assure you: I’d rather see him back in 2013 as well. I’ve already written about how impressively versatile and important to the running game Walker is. His struggles in the passing game are probably more anomalous than they are a trend. If that’s how we see it, and if that’s how Trent Baalke sees it, then there are 31 other NFL general managers who see Walker’s value as well. Should the tight end decide to evade Davis’ shadow once and for all and sign with another team, the 49ers won’t have to look much further than Palo Alto for his replacement.
I blushed when I read the aforementioned piece BASG wrote about Walker. I’m THAT guy who thirsts for Stanford tight ends. If this appeal to Baalke sounds familiar, it’s probably because you followed me last season when I was singing the same tune about Coby Fleener. I wasn’t the only person semi-heartbroken when Fleener was still available at 30th overall and the 49ers decided to draft A.J. Jenkins instead. Fleener didn’t have a monster rookie season with the Colts, but I don’t need to tell you about how 26 catches for 281 yards and two touchdowns is more productive than … nevermind, no use rubbing it in.
Given the solidity at the position, Fleener probably wouldn’t have gotten much more action at tight end than Jenkins got at wideout in 2012, but 2013 could be a different story. A rookie tight end could be thrust into action immediately next season if Walker goes. Stanford offers two replacement options, the first of which is Zach Ertz.
While it’s not exactly digging deep into the college football world to look at the Cardinal for future 49ers, it does make sense. He’s an ideal fit for this offense.
— David Shaw has followed Harbaugh and Greg Roman’s offensive design, utilizing two tight ends on a good portion of their offensive snaps while putting heavy emphasis on run blocking. CBS Sports’ draft profile describes Ertz as a player who is “not afraid to get physical as a blocker and gives good effort in this area, always looking for someone to block downfield.“
— Any tight end coming into the 49ers’ offense would have a little adjusting to do while getting accustomed to the 49ers’ offensive peculiarities, but not Ertz. As CBS notes, he “has experience all over the offense for Stanford, lining up in-line, in the slot and out wide, but looked most comfortable in the slot.”
— Lining up as a slot receiver is something Walker did a lot for the 49ers, and though Ertz’s 4.79 40 time isn’t up to Walker’s speed, he has considerably stronger hands as well as a more physical presence.
— Most importantly, Ertz would provide the 49ers with another big red zone target (five red zone touchdowns in 2012) and, dare I say, a more sure-handed scoring threat than Davis. The 49ers lack size in their receiving corps, and at 6-6, Ertz would be the kind of go-up-and-get-it receiver San Francisco hasn’t had in a long time.
Here’s a pretty good highlight reel of Ertz in 2012:
Now, for the catch
The problem with Ertz is what it would cost to get him: while a few mock drafts have him going as high as 19th overall (NYG), he’s widely regarded as a late-first-to-early-second round pick, much like Fleener last year. While the 49ers are rumored to be “in love with” Ertz, spending a first round pick on him may be rash considering the team’s more pressing needs. If they decide to forego spending a first-rounder on Ertz, there’s another intriguing prospect readily available in Levine Toilolo.
When I went covered my first game on The Farm this season, a 54-48 overtime victory over the Arizona Wildcats, I hit the field to check out warmups and got an up close and personal look at Toiolo. I was blown away; He’s HUGE — 6-7 — and even running a 4.86 40, he’s still a mismatch waiting to happen against any defensive position. Had Toilolo been a more productive receiver for Stanford this year, he might be in the same first round conversation as Ertz. Unfortunately, he showed questionable ball skills and at times, disappeared from the box score completely.
CBS calls him a “balanced athlete with body control and long-striding speed” and “a nightmare in single coverage,” but they also note him lacking “ideal strength for the position” and getting “little push as a run blocker.” There are also questions about his durability after a season-ending knee injury in 2010 — he won the starting job over Coby Fleener before the season began, but ended up missing the entire year and was never the same afterwards.
All this adds up to low draft stock in Toilolo and possible value for the team who eventually takes him. While his low run blocking grades may be a red flag for the 49ers, his size makes him an intriguing option, especially if he’s available as late as the seventh round or even undrafted free agency, as CBS suggests.
Here’s a pretty good look at both the up- and downsides of Toilolo: highlights from Stanford vs. Arizona in 2011.
We may be putting the cart in front of the horse here, especially with Walker’s future up in the air. Still, if the 49ers do find themselves lacking a suitable option at tight end, Stanford offers some very intriguing players who could not only complement, but bring an entirely different dynamic to the 49ers offense in 2013.