How badly do 49ers need third tight end?

Nate Byham's release from the San Francisco 49ers, announced by the team Thursday, ends for now a once-promising career.

A sixth-round pick in 2010, Byham suffered a torn ACL before last season, depriving the team of a valued blocking specialist.

2011 TE Use: 3+ on Early Downs

Priorities evolve, however, and employing a generally one-dimensional third tight end might not represent efficient use of a roster spot.

The team's quality depth at receiver has swelled, at least on paper. Perhaps the team will more frequently use a third wideout on early downs. That could slightly reduce opportunities to use a third tight end, in theory.

The 49ers could also use an additional offensive lineman as a blocker when needed. They did that last season. Defensive linemen Demarcus Dobbs and Will Tukuafu have also practiced at tight end, providing another alternative. Dobbs in particular seems to have potential in that area.

The chart, based on data from ESPN Stats & Information, shows the 49ers ranking fourth in the NFL last season for the percentage of first- and second-down plays with three tight ends on the field. The percentages exclude plays negated by penalties. I included information at the bottom on the other NFC West teams.