Not much was expected of rookie Garrett Celek in the 2012 season.
The tight end from Michigan State was a surprise to even make the 49ers roster as an undrafted free agent, and there was nothing on his resume to suggest that he was bound for a career in the NFL.
Though he is the younger brother of Eagles tight end Brent Celek, Garrett Celek -- who was an offensive tackle in high school – made just 12 starts in college at tight end and had 14 catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns.
Yet in 2012 the younger Celek not only made the 49ers roster but contributed on special teams and as a third tight end behind Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. He caught four balls for 51 yards and no touchdowns, including his biggest reception of the season, a 35-yarder against the Seahawks in the next-to-last game of the regular season. He also appeared in all three San Francisco games in the postseason, including the Super Bowl, but did not have a catch.
Now with Walker gone there’s no guarantee Celek will move up into Walker’s role. The 49ers are expected to use one of their higher picks on a tight end, someone who can make a difference both as a blocker and receiver. Walker – who also had the skill set to line up as a wide receiver or in the backfield – was an incredibly versatile player.
In fact, with 13 picks scheduled in the draft (which begins April 25), the 49ers are expected to add a wealth of talent to the roster, meaning there’s no guarantee Celek will be on it for Game 1 in September.
But already Celek has beaten the odds and shown remarkable improvement, and tight ends are utilized by offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Celek played 105 snaps at tight end in 2012 for a team that used formations with more than two tight ends 8 percent of the time.
When the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Celek arrived at 49ers camp, it was obvious his biggest asset was as a blocker. After watching Celek early in training camp, Davis told reporters that Celek “couldn’t catch a fly.”
But Celek worked hard to make himself better and made the opening-day roster and some praise from Harbaugh.
“He earned it,” Harbaugh said at the time. “As we said early on in this process, it’s going to be a meritocracy here. Those things are earned out on the field; he did enough in our eyes to earn that spot.”
By January, Roman said Celek had become a much better player.
“I’ll be honest with you, the first week he was here, he wasn’t catching that well,” Roman told 49ers.com. “But he got better and better and better incrementally. He’s got a good feel for it.”
Celek said the first season for him was a steep learning curve, but he got good advice from his brother and was able to watch how Davis and Walker went about their business. Celek told 49ers.com that he owes much to the two veterans.
“I know when I first got here I couldn’t catch anything,” he said. “They helped me so much with that. I appreciated that a lot. Those two have made me the player I am right now.”
So, while the 49ers are expected to go for a dynamic tight end early – perhaps Stanford’s Zach Ertz, Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert, Travis Kelce of Cincinnati or Gavin Escobar of San Diego State – Celek has the potential of continuing to improve to give the 49ers three options at the position.
All the while, Garrett Celek says he’s going to take his brother’s words to heart. Big brother’s advice?
“Work harder,” Brent Celek told ESPN. “Work harder and get your butt on the field. Go to the coaches and tell them that you want to do everything that you can to get back on that field. Be a good guy in the locker room. Most importantly, do anything you can to make the team better.”