Training camp is well underway and in this position battle preview we will be taking a quick look at the tight end group. Given how fun camp has been thus far, and how fun I believe it will be to witness this season unfold, I’m going to have fun with this article, or make an ambitious attempt to at the least. Bare with me readers, for I am going to attempt and break down the tight end position group with some Lil Wayne lyrics that I felt best suited the situation for each player.
Let’s kick this off with a lyric that describes Kyle Shanahan,
“Homeboy got a mind that a map couldn’t find…”
It is no secret that Kyle Shanahan is a beautiful mind.
— Joe Fann (@Joe_Fann) July 31, 2018
THREE HOURS?! Just talking about film? At his leisure?! I’m not mad at this, not one bit. If those walls at team HQ could talk right now, they are probably going to talk film.
For Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, every player has a role. Shanahan’s use of his tight ends is an innovative and cunning sight to behold. Last season, Garrett ‘Celek Time’ and ‘Stone Cold’ George Kittle emerged as the undisputed tag team tight end duo in the Bay. In five games with Jimmy at the helm, they combined for 23 receptions, 412 yards, and 3 touchdowns. They ended the season with 851 yards combined and six touchdowns.
I know what you’re thinking, those numbers aren’t Rob Gronkowski caliber numbers. But what those numbers mean to me is that the tight end position to Kyle Shanahan is like lightning in a bottle. It’s no secret that Kyle Shanahan is one of the few that loves to use 13 personnel. Shanahan meticulously knows how to use his tight ends specifically to their skill sets in his scheme, and they can easily turn a 5 or 6-yard out pattern into a 30-yard gain. Inside the Pylon’s Mark Schofield broke this down beautifully a few years prior to Kyle Shanahan joining the 49ers.
Did the 49ers do anything in the postseason to upgrade the tight end position? No not really. You know what they say, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
George Kittle – LOCK
“Real Gs move in silence like lasagna…”
However, this G isn’t so silent anymore. A few months ago I wrote an article on why I believe George Kittle will become a household name. It is definitely clear that he has emerged as the undisputed TE1 of the 49ers World.
The Jimmy Garoppolo-to-George Kittle connection was cooking today. Garoppolo found Kittle for three long completions, highlighted by Kittle's one-handed grab near the right sideline on one play. #49ersCamp
— Joe Fann (@Joe_Fann) August 1, 2018
I’ll keep it simple and sweet, not only is this guy a great football player, he has a great energy about him. I really hope the glass shatters every time George Kittle takes the field because if you haven’t paid attention to George Kittle yet, then you better do so.
Pros: George has sure fire hands and is an excellent zone blocker. He showed great awareness and chemistry with Garoppolo at the end of last season and the trend is continuing into his sophomore season as he has more than likely secured the TE1 position in camp.
#49ersCamp Notes – Day 8: The Jimmy Garoppolo to George Kittle connection was out in force for today’s practice. The pair linked up five times to include a 25-yard touchdown during the red zone period. Kittle’s now clearly the team’s No. 1 tight end. #49ers
— Rob Lowder (@Rob_Lowder) August 3, 2018
Cons: The only con to write about are the injuries that slowed him as a rookie. Now they shouldn’t even be a concern, after offseason conditioning to increase muscle mass for part of his injury prevention regimen. Those injuries were just a minor setback for a major comeback, and it’s not even a comeback because George never even left. Don’t you put that voodoo on me Ricky Bobby.
49ers TE George Kittle worked hard to increase muscle mass this offseason, and it shows here. Part of his injury prevention regimen pic.twitter.com/w1pRL6KGOn
— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) June 12, 2018
Garrett Celek – LOCK
“22 year-old, 17 war vet, life in the fast lane, little red corvette…”
Not only did Celek time emerge last season, but Garrett Celek is one of the last remaining OGs on the team. Since he came aboard in 2012, let us just say Garrett has seen some things. Recently tight ends coach Jon Embree told reporters that Kittle, Celek and Hikutini will give Garoppolo excellent options as red-zone receivers.
Last season was arguably one of Garrett Celek’s most effective seasons as a 49er yet. Kyle Shanahan managed to capture lightening in a bottle and at the most opportune times, Celek time emerged. Recently Celek spoke about how he feels Garoppolo has the hutzpah to make players around him better,
“As soon as Jimmy came in, he just took control right away. He didn’t ease into at all. It was pretty awesome. We always say in our offense, and our entire team, you have to overcome coaching. And he’s really good at helping receivers overcome coaching.”
Not only is this guy trending upwards entering season two with Jimmy Garoppolo now at the helm, but his veteran presence provides a huge upside.
Pros: Celek has displayed he can be multi-faceted, proving viable in the passing and blocking aspects of being a tight end in a Kyle Shanahan offense.
Cons: The only con I can see that would affect Celek time is if he were to lose snaps to the emerging George Kittle. Even in this, it doesn’t necessarily mean he will lose playing time as Kyle Shanahan will most likely keep three tight ends all having huge responsibilities in this offense. In this scheme the tight ends will have equal responsibility and importance no matter what they are asked to do.
Cole Hikutini – STRONG BUBBLE
“Oh Lord, I’m the rookie and the vet…”
Plain and simple, Kyle Shanahan runs a very intricate offense. He needs his guys to be able to play with a very particular set of skills, a set of skills that Cole Hikutini may have, though he has also been hindered by injury. In November of 2017, Hikutini suffered an MCL sprain and was placed on injured reserve for the remainder of the season. Currently Hikutini is limited in camp due to a groin injury but expected to be back shortly and tight end Wes Saxton was signed as short term cover. Hikutini is what Richard Sherman said of safety Adrian Colbert, not a rookie anymore, but also not a veteran.
Pros: Hikutini has displayed good burst off the line with decent positional blocking. Scouts listed Hikutini’s natural hands and pass catching as a strength but I feel we haven’t seen enough of that from Hikutini to make that assessment just yet. Year two of learning Kyle Shanahan’s viciously detailed offense gives him the slight advantage if he can stay healthy.
Cons: I feel Hikutini may be on the bubble since he is coming off his rookie season from a season ending injury. Right now Hikutini is limited in practice nursing a groin injury but the team does favor him and has gone on record that they prefer Hikutini in the TE3 spot. However, as any position in camp, if you aren’t there to fight for that position, you are already losing, since everyone else is fighting for that TE3 spot.
Wes Saxton – WEAK BUBBLE
“Treat my semi like an Emmy, need some nominees…”
Since Wes Saxton has come into the league in 2015, he has made brief stints on the Jets, Redskins, Bills, Lions, and now 49ers. But so far his production, has not earned him any nominations to secure a spot on an NFL team. Saxton has been a journeyman for the last three years and was signed due in part to Cole Hikutini’s knee injury.
Pros: Scouts raved about Saxton’s burst and agile route running in college. He also showed the willingness to make the tough catch in traffic.
Cons: Displayed poor run blocking skills in college, poor run blocking doesn’t bode too well for someone fighting for the TE3 spot in a Kyle Shanahan offense.
Cole Wick – BUBBLE
“I got some weight on my shoulders, to me it’s like feathers. All hail Weezy, call it bad weather.”
Cole Wick was undrafted in 2016 but signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent. This made Wick the first Incarnate World college football player to ever make an NFL roster. However, his season ended prematurely after suffering a knee injury. The Lions placed Wick on injured reserve on November 1st, 2016. Wick was then added in October 2017 to the 49ers practice squad and eventually signed to a reserve/future contract with a 2-year, $1.2 million contract per Over the Cap. Unfortunately right now Cole Wick is out with a knee injury he sustained in the first week of 49ers camp and is day-to-day.
Pros: Cole Wick was a decent blocking tight end in college. Scouts raved about his huge frame and the potential position mismatches it could cause.
Cons: As of right now there is no word on the status of Wick and the severity of his knee injury. Unfortunately injuries are the worst aspect of going through the gruelling training during an NFL offseason program. They can be especially damaging to those trying to claim a spot at the bottom of the roster We wish Wick the best in a speedy recovery at this time.
Ross Dwelley – WEAK BUBBLE
“I don’t feel I done enough, so Imma keep on doin’ this, Lil’ Tunechi or Young Tuna Fish.”
Ross Dwelley was a consistent pass-catcher in college. He displayed the grit to make the tough catches and showed decent route running ability. But what scouts also noted about Dwelley was that he lacked the core strength to be a run blocker. Per NFL.com one NFC regional scout said Dwelley displayed,
“Great body control and terrible blocking. He has some potential, but he plays way too soft right now. He has to get tougher or he won’t make it.”
Pros: Scouts didn’t seem to have a problem with Dwelley’s pass catching abilities. He was rather consistent at small-program University of San Diego with 197 receptions for 2,305 yards and 26 touchdowns all-time.
Cons: Being a one trick pony in a Kyle Shanahan offense will not go in your favor. Scouts mentioned that Dwelley would get “tossed around” at point of attack and lack the ability to put in the extra drive to finish on blocks.
So how does season two of Kyle Shanahan’s tight end personnel look compared to last year? Well in my personal opinion I believe we will see George Kittle hit the stone cold stunner out of nowhere numerous times this season and it’s going to feel like it’s Celek time, all the time. No matter who is in at TE3, with this group in fine tune, it will be an intricate part of what makes Kyle Shanahan’s offense sound like music to your ears. Last season we only got a small taste of the chemistry developing with Jimmy Garoppolo and his tight ends. In case you missed it, they became some of his favorite targets in the five games he started under center.
Strength of this personnel group heading into this season: 8/10, power levels may reach over 9000 this season. 10/10, would watch score touchdowns again and again.
Player Power Rankings as of 8/6/18 on a scale of 1-10 based on camp observations going into preseason week one against the Cowboys. I will update this through out the preseason regularly.
George Kittle – 9
Garrett Celek – 9
Cole Hikutini* – 7
Cole Wick* – 5
Ross Dwelley – 3
Wes Saxton – 3
* injured, day-to-day in Camp or limited in practice
Bookmark this article and lock in to all of Nothing But Niners social media platforms as we will be monitoring the tight end position ‘battle royale’ very closely.