If one tight end is super, is two super tight ends even better?
In the NFL in 2012, the answer most likely will be yes.
Why? Because in the NFL, if something works one season – as it did in 2011 when the New England Patriots rode a pair of terrific tight ends to the Super Bowl – the other 31 teams are likely to incorporate the idea into their offense.
So as the 49ers scan the free-agent market for wide receivers to upgrade their passing game, and study the information they collected from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, might the Pats’ pair of go-to tall, athletic tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez give the Niners an idea for juicing up their offense in 2012?
Imagine the 49ers signing a top-tier wide receiver in free agency, and then drafting a young pass-catching phenom at tight end to pair with incumbent standout Vernon Davis.
Suddenly, head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Alex Smith would have a wealth of receiving options.
“You’re going to see the whole league start to move to that, because it’s such a matchup problem,” Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez told The Sporting News this month. “Because even if you’re guarded, just throw it up there and give me a chance and most of the time I’m going to come down with it.”
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch noted recently that a perfect pickup might be Stanford tight end Coby Fleener, who played for Harbaugh at Stanford.
Fleener, wrote Branch, is projected as a late first-round choice, and the 49ers’ have the 30th pick. And Harbaugh has proven – both at Stanford and with the 49ers – that he loves to incorporate tight ends into his game plans.
At 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, Fleener has shown he can make big plays. Over his final two seasons at Stanford, he had 62 catches for 1,101 yards. This past season, he had 10 TD catches.
Fleener has seen the Patriots’ two tight-end designs and the incorporation of more tight ends into offensive schemes – such as with former basketball players Jimmy Graham in New Orleans and Antonio Gates in San Diego – and knows what he does carries more value to NFL teams these days.
“The Jimmy Grahams, the Gronkowskis of the world have really done our class of tight ends a favor this year,” Fleener told Branch. “I can’t say enough about the guys that have already played, and I hope to one day go play just like that.”
Among the other tight ends who could be prizes in this year’s draft are Georgia’s Orson Charles, Ladarius Green of Louisiana Lafayette, Drake Dunsmore of Northwestern, Dwayne Allen of Clemson and Michael Egnew of Missouri.
Though the 49ers have another solid tight end on their roster in Delanie Walker – who also proved to be a valuable blocker in San Francisco’s run-oriented offense – the lure of another matchup-problem target might be too much for the Niners to pass up.