This is the sixth installment of a nine-part series that reviews every 49ers player and position group.After seeing how Stanford offenses used its tight ends under coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, big things were expected from Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker in the 49ers' passing game. However, it did not work out that way through most of the season. Both Davis and Walker had their lowest production since 1998 2008, when then-offensive coordinator Mike Martz virtually eliminated the tight end from the offense. But things picked up late for Davis, who became the team's top receiving threat -- really, their only receiving threat -- in the playoffs. Grade: BVernon Davis -- After two seasons with more than 900 yards receiving, Davis' production took a step back in the regular season. He struggled mightily to learn the new 49ers system, and admittedly became frustrated. But late in the season, it seemed to click for him. He averaged 42 yards receiving in the 49ers' first 13 games. In his final five games, including the playoffs, Davis averaged 107 yards receiving. He has never been finer than in the two playoff games, catching 10 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Davis played more than 95 percent of the team's offensive snaps during the season, and he once again excelled as a blocker.Delanie Walker -- When Walker caught six passes for 69 yards on Nov. 13 against the New York Giants, it figured to be the start of a larger role in the passing game. But Walker finished the season without another catch in the six games before sustaining a fractured jaw that kept him out of action for a month. He returned to action and caught two passes for 36 yards in the NFC Championship Game against the Giants. Walker made major improvements as a blocker this season. He threw key blocks on Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to spring big runs in the 49ers' win. Walker finished the regular season with just 19 catches for 198 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games.Justin Peelle -- The 10-year veteran was added to the 53-man roster after the first game of the season as a blocking specialist. He did what he was brought in to do, and his play time saw a bump late in the season after Walker's injury. He was used almost exclusively in short-yardage situations. He caught just one pass for 19 yards during the regular season.Nate Byham -- His season ended before it began when he sustained a torn ACL in his left knee during training camp. Byham spent the entire season on injured reserve. His rehabilitation is on schedule. Although he said he believes he would be ready to participate in minicamps and organized team activities, Byham said there is no reason to rush it. He fully expects to be ready to compete for a roster spot in training camp.
The 49ers have graduated back to the phase of the offseason when offense-vs.-defense drills are allowed.
Because of the hiring of Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers were allowed an additional “voluntary” minicamp before the NFL draft. That meant the 49ers were permitted to skip from the two-week conditioning phase of the offseason straight to what is allowed under Phase III.
But after the three-day minicamp in late-April, the 49ers were forced to retreat back to Phase II, when on-field drills but could not include offense vs. defense.
Beginning Monday – and over the next three weeks -- the 49ers can get back to conducting the standard one-on-one, 7-on-7, 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 "non-contact" drills. The 49ers have the maximum number of 10 organized team activities scheduled. The official offseason program concludes with a mandatory minicamp scheduled for June 13-15.
The real competition does not begin until the pads go on during training camp. but here’s a look at the team’s most notable offseason competitions (one position you will not find is quarterback, where the depth chart of Brian Hoyer, Matt Barkley and C.J. Beathard appears clearly set):
Running back: Carlos Hyde, entering the final year of his original four-year contract, has a lot of competition to hold onto his role as the featured back. He is coming off his most-productive season, finishing just 12 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark when he sustained a knee injury with one game remaining. Shanahan and running backs coach Bobby Turner lobbied for Utah running back Joe Williams in the draft. They clearly see a fit for him within the system.
Pass-rush end: The 49ers’ pass rush was among the worst in the NFL the past two seasons. Arik Armstead will be given an opportunity to see if he can adapt to the “Leo” position. Aaron Lynch must earn the confidence of the coaching staff and front office. The 49ers added explosive, 243-pound pass Pita Taumoepenu in the sixth round.
Tight end: The 49ers confirmed Vance McDonald was available for a trade during the draft. After finding no takers, the 49ers brought back McDonald and he rejoins the competition among rookies George Kittle and Cole Hikutini, and veterans Logan Paulsen, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell.
Cornerback: Rashard Robinson is the obvious choice to start on one side. And assuming Jimmie Ward remains at free safety, the 49ers have no other player on the roster who has started a significant number of games at cornerback. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, will have a legitimate opportunity to win a starting job, as long as he displays a willingness to stick his nose into the action and play with the requisite level of physicality. Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Will Redmond should also be in the mix to replace Tramaine Brock, who was released shortly after his arrest after an alleged domestic incident last month.
Center: Jeremy Zuttah, a Pro Bowl performer, was added in the offseason via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. Daniel Kilgore has been the 49ers’ center the past three seasons but injuries have limited him to just 23 starts over that period of time. Zuttah has position flexibility. The 49ers could determine the best thing for the offensive line is to move Zuttah to one of the guard positions – to challenge Zane Beadles or Joshua Garnett -- if he is not clearly better than Kilgore.
Weakside linebacker: The 49ers signed veteran Malcolm Smith on the first day of free agency, providing him with $11.5 million of fully guaranteed money. The 49ers ranked Alabama linebacker Reuben Foster as the No. 3 overall prospect in the draft. They traded up to select him at No. 31 overall. Assuming Foster is ready to compete at the beginning of training camp after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, it appears likely he would line up in that position and compete with Smith. The 49ers’ medical staff does not believe Foster will require any additional surgery, and Foster said he expects to be cleared for the opening of camp.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan spent last offseason working with Tom House and Adam Dedeaux on his throwing mechanics.
Ryan went on to set career-bests in completion percentage (69.9), yards passing (4,944), touchdowns (38), interceptions (7) and passer rating (117.1).
New 49ers quarterback Matt Barkley worked with House and Dedeaux for the fourth offseason in Southern California before reporting to Santa Clara for the team’s offseason program.
“Kyle (Shanhan) is on board with what House and those guys are doing – I think, really, because of the year Matt Ryan had,” Barkley said on “The 49ers Insider Podcast” on NBC Sports Bay Area.
“He’s a believer in that. He saw the benefits of what Matt did with some of his drops and the timing on routes, how he changed his feet on some things. So we’re kind of sticking with that plan. Everyone is a little different, but for the most part we’re all on the same page when it comes to what our drops are looking like, our footwork and how the ball is coming out.”
House is a former major league pitcher and pitching coach who founded the 3DQB training facility in Los Angeles. Dedeaux pitched at USC and is the grandson of USC baseball coaching legend Rod Dedeaux. Former NFL quarterback John Beck is a motion mechanics instructor.
Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Alex Smith and Carson Palmer are among the NFL quarterbacks who have worked with 3DQB.
“I believe in those guys and what they’re doing,” Barkley said. “They’re at the top of their game, working with Brady and a bunch of other guys. They’ve helped me.
“He won’t change your throwing motion or really tweak how the ball comes out, but he’s going to try to maximize velocity and ground force production and torque -- a lot of sports science terms. But, really, just maximizing efficiency with your motion and making sure you’re sequencing is right.”
Barkley had never played for Shanahan before signing a two-year contract with the 49ers on the first day of free agency. But there are two obvious connections. Barkley’s offensive coordinator last season with the Chicago Bears was Dowell Loggains, Shanahan’s quarterbacks coach in 2014 when Shanahan was the Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator. The other connection is House.
"It’s kind of funny, he worked with Atlanta’s staff all of last year, helped Matt Ryan, kind of build his base from the ground up and helped him a lot and he had an MVP year," Barkley said of House.
"There may have been talks down the pipeline, who knows. I don’t think that was the deciding factor by any means, but it never hurts.”