With tight end Delanie Walker on the move to Tennessee, the San Francisco 49ers have a big hole to fill on their offense.
Walker played a significant role in the San Francisco offense, and though the physically dominant Vernon Davis remains on the roster, Jim Harbaugh will likely add another tight end via the 2013 NFL Draft.
By trading Alex Smith away to the Kansas City Chiefs, Harbaugh acquired the draft’s 34th overall pick. This puts him in prime position to draft Zach Ertz, an athletic stud who blossomed under Harbaugh at Stanford.
Ertz would be a great fit in the San Francisco offense for a number of reasons.
The first is obvious. An Ertz-Harbaugh reunion would likely allow the young tight end to contribute right away, as Ertz has had plenty of experience in his former coach’s offensive system.
Next, Ertz was a truly dominant player at the college level. In 2012, he was a unanimous All-American, leading the nation’s tight ends with 69 catches for 898 yards. He also added 6 touchdown receptions.
At 6’5” and 249 pounds, he is a matchup nightmare for any safety or linebacker, especially in combination with his above-average speed and athleticism.
The former Cardinal standout has superb hands, regularly going up to grab the ball at its highest point over defenders. This makes him a valuable red zone target. Five of his six touchdowns in 2012 came within his opponents’ 20-yard line.
The 49ers converted 54 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns in 2012. That percentage is not terrible, but it is not great either. Now that Randy Moss is gone, the Niners have no receiver with a true number-one body type. Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Anquan Boldin, and A.J. Jenkins are all 6’1” or below, so Ertz’ 6’5” frame will provide a much-needed red zone weapon, especially with the recent struggles of kicker David Akers.
Finally, many NFL teams have found recent success using two tight ends. The New England Patriots, for example, have used Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez extremely effectively over the past few seasons.
The Patriots have also been using an up-tempo offensive system that has kept opponents on their heals.
Harbaugh showed a tendency to put Walker and Davis to work simultaneously in 2012 as well, employing two tight end sets on over half of the team’s plays. A no-huddle offense with Colin Kaepernick, LaMichael James, Vernon Davis, and Ertz is a scary thought.
Ertz has plenty of experience in pro-style sets, but he has also lined up in the slot or out wide in his college career, which would give San Francisco the ability to use him in numerous ways.
Given all that Ertz would do for Harbaugh and the San Francisco offense, I would be surprised if the 49ers let him slip past their early second-round pick acquired in the Alex Smith trade.