The transition of Bruce Miller from fullback to tight end still has a way to go. Miller has yet to play the position in a game, and 49ers training camp won’t open until the end of the month.
But if the transition is smooth and Miller shows he can play a versatile role as a pass catcher and blocker in Chip Kelly’s spread offense, that could put Blake Bell – and several other tight ends – on the roster bubble.
Bell, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2015, is a former college quarterback who made a position switch to tight end while with the Sooners. He’s still a relative newcomer at the tight end position yet has come a long way in a short time.
The 6-foot-6, 263-pounder came on strong for the 49ers in his rookie season, seeing increased playing time late in the year. He played in 14 games and had 15 catches, with 12 of those coming over the final six games. His biggest games came against the Cardinals in November (three catches, 67 yards), the Browns in December (three catches, 49 yards) and Bengals in December (four catches, 43 yards).
But as the 49ers head toward the start of training camp, it appears the competition at tight end will be fierce. Veterans Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald likely are the top two favorites, with Miller, Bell, Rory “Busta” Anderson (a 2015 draftee who missed the season because of injury) and Je’Ron Hamm battling for roster spots in an offense that often features three- and four-wide receiver sets.
One projection, by ESPN’s Michael Wagaman in June, predicted that Bell would have trouble making the final 53-man roster for Game 1 in September.
Yet it appears it will be a wide-open competition. The 49ers don’t have a clear No. 1 playmaker at tight end, but the depth and potential of the group intrigue Kelly. He’ll likely take a long look at everyone.
“There are four quality tight ends that have played, so that will be a fun group to work with, in terms of how you disperse them and try to figure out what’s going on,” Kelly said this offseason.
Bell had some good moments in his rookie season, including a 48-yard catch-and-run play against the Cardinals that set up a touchdown. Overall, he said he was happy with the progress he made as a rookie but wants to make a bigger impact in Year 2.
He’ll get the chance when training camp opens for veterans on July 31.
“There are a lot of things I can get better at,” Bell said earlier this offseason. “ … I feel like at least getting out there (in 2015) and getting some good playing time has been pretty good for me. It will help me in the long run.”