The 49ers overhauled most of last years roster looking to acquire players that could be an upgrade to their respective positions and who could fit more into new head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive system. Looking back at his offense in Atlanta, the tight ends didn’t put up the biggest numbers but they did play a special role. Kyle uses more 13 personnel formations that most other coaches do which is a run first set. The tight ends will be asked to block effectively on both running and passing plays as Shanahan’s offensive is mainly dependent on play action.
The offense the last few years in San Francisco was very inconsistent as can also be said regarding the tight end position and it needed to be completely retooled this offseason. Entering training camp the 49ers depth chart included returning veterans Vance McDonald, Blake Bell, Garrett Celek. The team added in some youth to the position in George Kittle and Cole Hikutini along with some veteran experience in Logan Paulsen.
The team decided to trade veteran Vance McDonald to the Pittsburgh Steelers after rumors of them trying to deal him swirled for months. While Vance make some splash plays, he was very up and down player who had stone hands. He hauled in 24 receptions for 391 yards and 4 touchdowns in the 2016 season. McDonald had a 15.8% drop rate (Per PFF) since being drafted in 2013 which is the worst among all tight ends in that time period.
Blake Bell was drafted by the team in the 4th round of the 2015 draft but was viewed as a project because he was transitioning from quarterback to tight end. He was released by the 49ers during the final 53 man cut down of the roster. While he showed a few flashes in past years, he never really developed into much since entering the league. He did not stand out at all during training camp or in preseason games compared to the other tight ends that made the roster. Blake was claimed by the Minnesota Vikings on September 4th.
With McDonald gone, George Kittle has now supplanted himself as the team’s number one tight end. The 49ers drafted Kittle in the fifth round out of Iowa and the team is very high on him as they should be after he performed very strong in training camp. Kittle is a polished route runner, has shown to have soft and consistent hands. One of the most important areas to look at while evaluating a young tight end is how effective that he is at blocking. George came from a pro style offense and it shows, he displays a great blocking technique and footwork. He is far more than just a blocking tight end, he have proven that he has the vertical speed (4.52 in the 40 yard dash at the Combine) to get by defenders and also the strength to break tackles. The best example of that was his highlight 29 yard touchdown in week two of preseason vs the Kansas City Chiefs where Kittle made a strong catch and broke a few tackles to take it into the end zone. George should be one of the team’s biggest red zone threats as he will be a one on one nightmare when he matches up against any linebackers and cornerbacks.
The next tight end that seems certain for a roster spot and receive some playing time is Logan Paulsen. He was acquired in free agency from the Chicago Bears. He was released to make room for Xavier Cooper, and then quickly resigned after Ronald Blair was added to the injury reserve. Even with that transaction his position seems very safe. While he may not have have been a splash signing, he does bring NFL game experience, knows Shanahan’s offense and is a very sound blocker. Logan was with Shanahan from 2010-2013 and had his best seasons as a pro in the final two years averaging 26 receptions and 287 yards. Those are not outstanding numbers but he should be more valuable to the team in other ways. He ranked 8th overall in run blocking last according to PFF with a grade of 75.0 which is outstanding and could help assist a shaky offensive line. The coaching staff and front office made it a point this offseason to bring in players with a history in this system, with the purpose of contributing early and helping teach other players not as familiar with it. Paulsen is expected to serve as the team’s primary blocking specialist for 2017.
Celek is the lone survivor of this group from past regimes. The sixth-year veteran has averaged 24 receptions for 268 yards with 3 touchdowns the last 2 years scoring a PFF grade of 41.6 in 2016 which ranked him #57 overall among all tight ends. Garrett was viewed as a slight long shot to make the team as the coaching staff seemed poised to revamp the whole unit. That could be different since Vance McDonald was traded and now Celek seems likely to be the tight end that could benefit the most from the move. He wasn’t too involved in the passing game throughout preseason but that should change as Shanahan loves using multiple tight ends and he’ll be Kittle’s receiving backup.
The 49ers signed fullback Kyle Juszczyk to a big contract which caught some media and fans for a surprise but it was well deserved after he was the top ranked performer at his position last season according to PFF (86.0 Overall). He must be included with the tight ends because the team figures to use him as much more than just a fullback. The “offensive weapon” should be utilized in pass-catching routes from the tight end position. Even though his career rushing numbers aren’t eye catching, he has done very well at receiving. Juszczyk has averaged 39 receptions for 293 yards and 2 tds the last two season. He eclipsed 465 snap which would rank him 27th among all running backs but it will be interesting to see what happen because Coach Shanahan only used a fullback 323 times last year while being the offensive coordinator with the Falcons. I expect that his stats will blossom tremendously from his first few season in the league and he could be one of the team’s biggest breakout start of the year.
Hikutini was signed as a UDFA out of Louisville and instantly became a fan favorite. Cole was released on the final cut down down but was resigned and is now part of the practice squad. He did not show too much in training camp and barely saw snaps in the preseason games. Even without much of an impact so far Cole is very intriguing and if he can work on some of the basic fundamentals, he has the potential to turn into a star. The biggest weakness in his game is blocking, he will have to improve on his overall strength and toughness while taking on defenders.
Just like every position on this team the tight end unit is quite the mystery heading into this season. The hype for George Kittle is at an all-time high, especially as former second-round pick Vance McDonald was ultimately a bust (At least in his 49ers career). Fans must keep in mind that Kittle is a rookie and will have his highs along with plenty of lows. Overall, it will be very important to get contributions from this group to make Shanahan’s offense effective and will need a variety of players to step up to get the most out of this potent offense.