Seven NFL tight ends finished last season with at least 75 receptions. Six had at least seven touchdown receptions. Seven had at least two receptions of 40-plus yards.
But none of them played for NFC West teams, an upset.
2011 Stanford Throws of 15+ Yards
Tight end was one position where teams in the division appeared set. The San Francisco 49ers had Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. The Seattle Seahawks acquired Zach Miller to pair with John Carlson. The Arizona Cardinals signed veterans Todd Heap and Jeff King. They also drafted Rob Housler in the third round. The St. Louis Rams used a second-round choice for Lance Kendricks.
While New England's Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans' Jimmy Graham were putting up numbers usually associated with elite wide receivers, Davis was the only NFC West tight end with more than 28 receptions, 352 yards or three touchdowns. Tight ends for the Rams and Seahawks failed to score even one touchdown.
These are all things to consider when evaluating whether NFC West teams might have interest in the top-rated tight end in the 2012 NFL draft. Stanford's Coby Fleener led FBS tight ends with 10 touchdowns last season, with seven of them coming on passes traveling at least 15 yards past the line of scrimmage, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
While the 49ers are the best-equipped team in the division at tight end, two factors make Fleener an intriguing consideration for them. Fleener played for 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman at Stanford. Also, the 49ers are drafting late enough in the first round (30th overall) to make Fleener a potentially strong value selection if he remains available at that point in the draft.
Mel Kiper Jr. projected Fleener to the New York Giants at No. 32. Todd McShay had Fleener going to the Indianapolis Colts at No. 34. Other analysts have Fleener off the board earlier, with NFL Draft Scout's Rob Rang sending the tight end to Cleveland at No. 22.
Seattle (12th) and Arizona (13th) pick earlier than analysts are projecting Fleener to go, assuming neither trades down in the round. The 49ers (30th) and Rams (33rd, 39th) hold choices nearer the lower projections for Fleener. Seattle picks 43rd.
Every team in the division could use another receiving weapon.
The first chart compares Fleener's production on longer passes to production for his teammates on the same types of throws. He was by far the most effective weapon for quarterback Andrew Luck.
The second chart compares Fleener's production to that of other leading college tight ends on passes thrown down the middle of the field, defined as between the hash marks. Fleener averaged 23.8 yards per reception on these throws last season.
Since 2008, 62.8 percent of all targets to NFL tight ends have been inside the yard-line numbers, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Rules changes have made the middle of the field a safer place for receivers and tight ends to operate. Fleener will have value to teams looking to exploit that area of the field.