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 on Monday extended one-year qualifying offers to nose tackle Mike Purcell and linebacker Carl Bradford as exclusive-rights free agents.
Purcell appeared in 15 games last season. He started the first five games of the season at nose tackle and was a reserve for the remainder of the season. Originally signed in 2013 as an undrafted rookie from Wyoming, Purcell has appeared in 25 games over the past three seasons.
The 49ers claimed Bradford off waivers in December from the Green Bay Packers. He appeared in the final two games of the season with the 49ers and was credited with two tackles.
Bradford entered the NFL out of Arizona State as a fourth-round pick of the Packers in 2014. After being inactive for every game as a rookie, Bradford was among Green Bay’s final cuts in 2015. He spent the season on the practice squad.
He appeared in four games for the Packers last year. The 49ers claimed him after he was waived in December.
Exclusive rights free agents are player who have fewer than three years of NFL service who have no outside negotiating power if a team extends a qualifying offer.
The 49ers’ new regime heads to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week with the first major wave of offseason activity set to kick off.
Already, the 49ers have made roster improvements. And there figure to be plenty of activity ahead in the coming weeks.
Here are some questions submitted by readers on Facebook for this edition of 49ers Mailbag:
Do you see the 49ers cutting ties with larger contracts like Bethea, Torrey Smith and Ahmad Brooks? (Blair Wilkins)
The 49ers have approximately $75 million in space under the salary cap – and that’s before any adjustment of Colin Kaepernick’s contract. So it’s not as if the organization needs to create cap room.
Any decision made to part ways with veteran players will be made solely on how that player fits into what the 49ers envision on the field.
And that’s what general manager John Lynch, coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff are doing now. They are studying the video from last season to determine which players fit their ideals.
Safety Antoine Bethea is scheduled to earn $5.75 million. Bethea, 32, enters the final year of his contract. There is no question he is everything the 49ers want in a player off the field. If one of the younger guys is not better than Bethea, there is no reason to get rid of him.
Brooks is on the books to earn $5.3 million in 2017. That’s not a huge amount for a starting outside linebacker or defensive end – whichever spot he might fit best. The 49ers must look to upgrade their pass rush. Brooks turns 33 next month. He’s good for six sacks a season. Again, it’s not as if the 49ers can’t afford him. And, as of now, it’s not as if the 49ers have anyone better.
Smith is scheduled to earn $8 million. He has been vastly underutilized in his two seasons since signing with the 49ers. He’s the most interesting case of the high-priced veterans.
Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on using the running game to set up the play-action shot down the field. Smith is limited. He’s not a possession receiver. He’s not going to make plays over the middle. He is an outside receiver whose contributions come in the vertical passing game. But that’s what Shanahan wants.
If Smith is paired with a strong tight end, a running back who catch the ball out of the backfield, a slot receiver with short-area quickness to get open underneath, a very good receiver on the other side and an accurate quarterback who can throw the deep ball, there should be a role for Smith in the 49ers’ offense.
Will the 49ers continue to be aggressive pursuing free agents this offseason? If so, what positions? (Bradley Lodge)
The 49ers have zeroed in on two veteran free agents and they signed them both.
The organization has already spent more money than it did all of last offseason on veteran free agency with the four-year, $16 million deal to sign defensive tackle Earl Mitchell, whom the Miami Dolphins recently released.
Nickel back K’Waun Williams has a history with 49ers defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley. The 49ers did not have to make much of a financial investment to sign him.
The 49ers will definitely go after a veteran quarterback or two in free agency or via trade. Pass rusher, inside linebacker and wide receiver are other positions the 49ers can be expected to look during free agency.
The opening of the new league year – when free-agent signings and trades can occur – is March 9. The draft is seven weeks later.
The 49ers must fill as many of their needs with smart deals that fit into the long-term plan with veteran acquisitions. Then, the draft is about taking the best players on their board when it’s time to select. Teams that reach for need generally strike out.
What are the chances of drafting a QB with first pick and playing them behind a Kap / Cousins until they're ready to become starter? (Hillory Broussard)
If Colin Kaepernick returns, it will not be as a no-questions-asked starter. Just read what Lynch said on KNBR this week about the team’s needs:
“Do we have some places – probably the ultimate position, quarterback – where we need to improve? Absolutely. And we’re committed to doing that.”
That statement can easily be interpreted that Lynch does not believe the 49ers had a starting-caliber quarterback on the roster last season.
But if the 49ers were to go out and swing a trade for Kirk Cousins or Jimmy Garoppolo, it’s going to take a big commitment – in terms of draft picks and a suitable new contract. Then, the 49ers would have that player.
Cousins or Garoppolo would unquestionably fill the 49ers’ need at quarterback for 2017 and beyond -- at least in the minds of the 49ers' new decision-makers. There would be no reason for the 49ers to then draft a quarterback with the No. 2 overall pick – if the 49ers even had the No. 2 overall pick at that point.