Midway through this season, the 49ers traded veteran tight end Vernon Davis to the Broncos.
Then in the first quarter of Sunday’s 19-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, the Niners lost tight end Garrett Celek to a high ankle sprain.
Yet the remaining tight ends on the roster, most notably Vance McDonald and rookie Blake Bell, stepped up to become a big part of the 49ers’ offensive game plan, catching nine passes between them for 138 yards and a touchdown.
In fact, it’s probably no coincidence that Celek, McDonald and Bell have become a much bigger part of the passing attack since Blaine Gabbert took over at quarterback the past three games.
In those games, against the Falcons, Seahawks and Cardinals, the trio has a combined 19 catches for 269 yards and four touchdowns.
Against the Cardinals, Bell played a bigger role with Celek out, catching three passes, including one of 48 yards. McDonald, meanwhile, had six receptions for 71 yards and the 49ers’ only TD, an 8-yard catch in the third quarter.
McDonald, a second-round pick from Rice in the 2013 draft, had seven catches for 45 yards with Kaepernick as the QB and has 12 for 155 yards and his only two career TDs since Gabbert took over the job.
When McDonald was asked by reporters after Sunday’s game if that were a coincidence, he said: "I don’t know. You guys can be the judge of that."
After Sunday’s game, McDonald told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group that several factors have factored into the tight ends becoming more a part of the offense.
"There are a lot of moving parts," he said. "Blaine and (Kaepernick) are completely different players. Vernon being gone is another huge thing. One-on-one matchups were huge today, and tight ends were easy wins for us. But we’ve got to win the game."
It’s obvious Gabbert is comfortable using his tight ends. All four of his TD throws have been to players at the position.
Bell, who was converted from quarterback to tight end at Oklahoma, had the biggest play of his pro career so far, on his 48-yard catch-and-run. Gabbert rolled to his right, then looked back across the field to his left and zinged a pass to a wide-open Bell, who rumbled deep into Arizona territory to set up the 49ers’ only TD.
"I was just ready for when my time is called," Bell told reporters.
The 49ers (3-8) get their next opportunity this coming Sunday in Chicago against the Bears (5-6).