I asked a question near the end of Jim Harbaugh’s press conference today on the San Francisco 49ers’ practice field in Santa Clara, and Harbaugh answered it. Funny how that works out sometimes. Here’s how it went, along with video below.

With former 49ers TE Delanie Walker no longer here, how’s the tight end position shaking out during these mini-camps and OTAs?

“Well, first and foremost, [TE] Vernon Davis has been an absolute stud all offseason. I believe he’s in line for a perfect attendance certificate. And just done everything right. Done everything at a captain level. Then [TE] Vance McDonald has really asserted himself, both athletically and someone that’s understanding the system also with a lot on his plate. At a position that’s asked to do a lot of different things. [TE] Garrett Celek continues to improve and come along. And [TE] MarQueis [Gray] is doing a nice job, a college quarterback. But, I think he’s got the ability to be an NFL player. And then I think you already know my appreciation for [FB] Jason Schepler, back playing Y tight end and fullback. So, again, another guy to keep a close eye on as somebody that you just root for, that you’re pulling for because he’s a do-stuff-right guy. And all of that has really come from Vernon Davis’ example, and I think it carries down to the rest of the position group.”

So what does all that mean? Although no one will come out and say it, the 49ers need Davis to be an “absolute stud” in every sense. His yards and touchdowns have declined in the last two regular seasons, but they’ll need him to play like he has on the postseason (where he has caught 22 passes for 546 yards and five touchdowns in five games) for the entire year. They’ll also need “captain level” leadership from Davis, since the other tight ends in the mix are a rookie (McDonald) a second-year player (Celek) and two undrafted free agents (Gray and Schepler).

Vance McDonald 49ers OTAsIf we can parse this further — and I believe we can because Harbaugh always chooses his words very carefully — it appears that McDonald is ahead of Celek on the depth chart. That isn’t exactly a revelation, since McDonald was chosen in the second round and Celek wasn’t drafted before joining the team last year. However, Celek played more offensive snaps than any rookie in 2012 and yesterday, when talking about A.J. Jenkins, Harbaugh said, “Anybody that’s gone from year one to year two, it’s a great window of opportunity to improve in the kind of fashion that you’ll never have again in your career.”

McDonald is truly humongous for a tight end, but he doesn’t look that big until you see him up close. On the field he moves smoothly and has made several nice catches this week during minicamp. It’s hard to determine McDonald’s ceiling, since his size (6′ 4″, 267 lbs) means his true advantage may come when opposing linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks try to bring him down. And since contact is forbidden during these early offseason sessions, we don’t know about his capabilities as a blocker.

This has been a constant theme on this site, but Harbaugh’s comments about “understanding the system” cannot be ignored. The 49ers have shown a clear preference for braniacs, especially in regards to their latest draft picks, and McDonald chose Rice after finishing fifth in his high school class in GPA. In other news, I kind of hate Vance McDonald, since I would’ve needed at least 30 kids in my graduating class to come down with debilitating cases of mono to have any prayer of finishing in the top 10.

What do the guys who’ve been covering him in practice think? Here’s what Patrick Willis had to say.

“Vance is a big kid. I don’t want to call him a kid — a big man. He gets the opportunity to learn from one of the best in the game in Vernon. Just to see how much he’s done so far, seeing him run his routes, and I know he’s going to continue to get better. I know Kap and those guys on the offensive side are going to teach him a lot,” said Willis, who also noted that size isn’t everything.

“Sometimes it’s not all about size. It’s being able to run the right routes, it’s being able to read the defenses,” Willis said. “It doesn’t matter how big you are or fast you are if you can’t read the defense fast enough. I know those guys are going to have him ready over there and hopefully he can contribute early for us.”