When I was 9 years old, I saw the 49ers win their first Super Bowl. I can still remember how the late Pat Summerall announced the starting lineups for both the Niners and the Bengals on that cold day in January 1982, and how in both cases, the tight end was the very first position announced. (The players in question were San Francisco’s Charle Young and Cincinnati’s Dan Ross.)
I knew next to nothing about football then, but I loved Young’s enthusiasm and respected Ross’ catching ability (he hauled two touchdown passes from Ken Anderson that day and kept the game close in the second half).
Which is why I have a special affection for the position, and why I find the current competition to make the 53-man roster at tight end especially fun to watch. Okay, we have only seen two preseason games, and none of us knows what’s really going on in Kyle Shanahan’s head, but based on a limited amount of observation and what we knew about each of the six candidates before training camp began, we can at least start to see how the six candidates have been used so far, and how they will be used before the season opener.
Cole Hikutini: The rookie from Louisville has seen a grand total of 14 snaps in the two preseason games, and hasn’t been targeted yet by a 49ers QB for a pass. I’m thinking we just need to see more of him in game situations before anyone can make a decision on his destiny. But still…
Part of a tight end’s job is to block, and Hikutini wasn’t good at that in college. If the team is making a project of working on that aspect of his play, no one has said anything about it.
I’m not a great one for letting players slip away with no real chance to see them perform. So I hope that Shanahan gives Hikutini a chance to play more in the next two games. Depending on how well he does, I think putting him on the practice squad for a year might not be a bad option. Yes, he might get nabbed by another organization, but I think it would be unjust to simply cut him. It is a risk I would be willing to take, if I was the one taking it.
He could grow into a very dangerous mismatch threat but the 49ers will need him to become a better blocker so they can be a less predictable play-calling team when he sees the field. Of course, they could retain him and simply use him in passing situations, and hope that he can use his impressive receiving abilities to take advantages of mismatches against linebackers or defensive backs. This would undoubtedly be a questionable move however, due to the limited nature of his skillset and the likely lack of capable blocking tight ends on the roster.
Garrett Celek: He has caught one pass in two games, albeit a long one (24 yards against the Chiefs). It surprises me that he hasn’t seen more playing time, considering he did a passable job at tight end last year (19 passes caught for 186 yards and three touchdowns) and that some of his competitors haven’t gotten a lot of chances to outdo Celek.
The knock on Celek has been that he’s too old to adapt to a new offense, that he gets hurt too much, and that he drops passes. Those are all reasons for concern, and Celek just may not be the superstar that the 49ers need so badly. A 45.8 PFF ranking is more a reason for embarrassment than pride for any player, let alone the guy who became the primary passing target for Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick.
Shanahan seems to like Celek, though, and he does have some seasoning and well roundedness. I think he has a fair chance to make the roster, assuming the team keeps three active duty tight ends.
Blake Bell: This one hurts. Bell has been targeted 3 times this preseason and caught the ball only once so far. (Oh yeah. He made one solo tackle too.)
I have always liked Bell, despite some claims from other journalists that he wasn’t anything special. It’s sad, because Bell has never really gotten a chance to show the team how versatile he can be — he had converted to tight end from quarterback, and has some size and blocking ability.
Bell has caught 19 passes in two years, with an average of 19 yards per reception. That, sadly, is where the good news ends. He hasn’t done anything spectacular since he got to Santa Clara, and he is up against some very tough competition, as detailed in the rest of this piece.
What could the team have done with Bell if he had been truly groomed, given careful coaching, and offered chances to contribute in possibly more than one position? We’ll never know, and that is what breaks my heart about this kid. I hope he finds another place to land after he is given his walking papers.
Logan Paulsen: He hasn’t been targeted yet in either of the two games, which would be distressing to his prospects — except that Paulsen worked with Shanahan when both were with the Redskins, and the player knows the coach’s system. Paulsen also played with both Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley in Chicago last season.
What that says to me is that Shanahan may have made up his mind already about Paulsen; more observation wouldn’t be necessary to assure the man’s spot on the roster. That’s the coach’s prerogative, of course, but it isn’t 100% fair of Shanahan to play favorites at this point.
Besides, Paulsen has shown me that whilst he is known for his blocking, he certainly has not been as good as you’d want in limited snaps. In the Chiefs game, he let Marcus Rush (and how I wish we had held onto him, damn you Chip Kelly!) blow by him and make a tackle that probably prevented a 49ers touchdown. It was a single instance of brain farting, but it’s not an impressive look for a player who will live and die by his blocking ability.
I’m not overly impressed with Paulsen thus far, and I hope we see more of him before the season opener, but I have a hunch he will be sticking around regardless (if he stays healthy).
George Kittle: Of all the newcomers to Santa Clara this year, Kittle and Solomon Thomas are the most intriguing to me. Kittle recovered from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the exhibition opener, and caught 3 passes for 33 yards and a touchdown that brought the Levi’s crowd to its feet in the Denver game. That TD run-after-catch also showed Kittle’s ability to stiff-arm a defender and to toe-dance along a sideline — both things that can be learned, but that must be executed if you want to make it in the NFL. PFF described Kittle’s touchdown reception as “one of the most impressive singular displays from a tight end this preseason.” It will undoubtedly have helped Kittle (and his quarterback of course) that he ran a lot of similar plays and play designs at Iowa. These misdirection play actions and his success performing them will undoubtedly have been a key reason why he was an attractive option to Kyle Shanahan, as they form a useful part of Shanahan’s passing offense.
I haven’t found a serious football writer who doesn’t think Kittle is going to make the roster and, before long, take the starting role from the player to be named (not much) later in this piece. But I would love to see him continue to get snaps as if he was fighting for his professional life. He is fun to watch, and he brings a level of QB-TE chemistry we haven’t seen on the 49ers since Alex Smith was playing catch with Vernon Davis.
Which, finally, brings us to…
Vance McDonald: To say he has been “streaky” is to render that word pretty well meaningless. I frankly didn’t expect that he would do much this season, so the fact that he caught two of three targets for 14 yards against Denver and looked like he was serious about keeping his job was kind of a pleasant surprise.
But that may be a flash in the pan. McDonald still has a reputation as an inveterate pass-dropper — he dropped one against Denver and another one against Kansas City — and he won’t shed that rep in four preseason games. Or even in sixteen regular season games, unless he scores a touchdown on every reception and never fumbles the ball away.
And, if we really want a reality check about McDonald, we have to remember that the team was trying to trade him and his cash-bulky contract this offseason, and didn’t get the deal done. Maybe the price tag scared other clubs off, but my sense is that he just wasn’t a desirable commodity, even to teams that badly needed a tight end.
Brian Peacock, whose opinions I respect immensely, said this summer that McDonald is someone the 49ers would still trade if the right deal came along. For that reason, I think the team will hold onto him, whether he starts or not. Football being what it is, the needs will be apparent for this team (and others) before Week 8 arrives, and Vance may be shown the door in an attempt to fill those needs. Or, he may play out this season for San Francisco and then be shopped again. Either way, he shouldn’t be cut.