Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down the Niners’ five tight ends.
This is the fourth edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the first three articles here:
The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2017 NFL season with tight ends Garrett Celek, Logan Paulsen and rookie George Kittle on the team’s initial roster, and undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini on the Niners’ practice squad. These four players were the only tight ends to see the field for the 49ers in 2017. Their lack of prior NFL receiving experience had a negative impact on the team’s passing game, but strategic changes to the offense — which we will discuss in an upcoming article — helped the 49ers’ offense flourish, with their tight ends finishing the 2017 season with respectable overall numbers.
After failing to catch a pass all season despite playing 144 offensive snaps, the 49ers made little attempt to re-sign Paulsen, who later signed a one-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons. The Niners’ three remaining tight ends from 2017 will be back for 2018; two are virtual locks to make the team, and the third will compete with a pair of players who also entered the NFL as undrafted free agents. Let’s take a look at each of the San Francisco 49ers’ five tight ends:
TE George Kittle
When 49ers general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan selected tight end George Kittle in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, the duo had high hopes for the Iowa product — but they probably weren’t expecting Kittle’s rookie season to be historic:
— Chris Wilson (@cgawilson) January 2, 2018
Kittle played through injuries throughout the 2017 season, yet he still ranked second among all rookie tight ends in both receptions and receiving yardage. Like most young players at his position, Kittle improved as the year progressed, and could be posed for a breakout sophomore season with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo under center for a full year in 2018.
TE Garrett Celek
In 2016, tight end Garrett Celek was one of the worst players on a bad 49ers roster. “The other Celek” earned an overall grade of 41.6 from Pro Football Focus, and lead all NFL tight ends in drop rate after dropping 14.7 percent of his catchable targets.
Fast forward a year — with the addition of a franchise quarterback — and Celek became PFF’s 16th ranked tight end, with his own catchphrase, “Celek Time.” Exactly when — or what — is Celek Time? No one’s quite sure — not even his teammates:
“It cannot be defined. When it’s Celek Time, it’s Celek Time. Whatever that means.” – 49ers WR Marquise Goodwin
“You don’t know it, until you’re in it.” – 49ers WR Trent Taylor
Celek — a former undrafted free agent — played over half of the Niners’ offensive snaps last season, and led the team with four touchdown receptions. Was the six-year veteran’s 2017 improvement merely a product of his new coach and quarterback, or are we experiencing the dawn of Celek Time? The tight end will cost the 49ers over $2.5 million in each of the three remaining years of his contract with the team, so Celek will need to earn his keep again in 2018.
TE Cole Hikutini
Undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini was one of the stars of training camp last season, which earned him a spot on the 49ers’ practice squad to begin the year. Hikutini was promoted to the 53-man roster in October, but logged just a pair of receptions over four games before his rookie season was cut short after the tight end injured his MCL.
Hikutini fully recovered from his knee injury by the time the 49ers held offseason workouts earlier this month, giving the second-year player a leg up on the competition for a role as the third tight end on the Niners’ roster, even though the job is often reserved for a blocking specialist. Hikutini can certainly catch the ball, but he will need to prove his worth as a blocker in order to make the 49ers’ Week-1 roster.
TE Ross Dwelley
The 49ers signed tight end Ross Dwelley, from the University of San Diego, as an undrafted free agent soon after the 2018 NFL Draft. Similar to Hikutini, Dwelley was primarily a pass-catching tight end in college, and will need to drastically improve his blocking skills if he expects to find his way onto an NFL roster.
However, Dwelley was a productive college receiver who caught 20 touchdown passes over his final two college seasons. At nearly 6-foot-5, Dwelley has the height to play tight end at the NFL level, but needs to add some mass onto his 240-pound frame. In order to make the team, Dwelley will need to add strength over the offseason, demonstrate proficiency as a blocker and prove that he can be a red-zone threat against NFL-level defenders.
TE Cole Wick
Second-year tight end Cole Wick also begin his career as an undrafted free agent. In 2016, Wick made the Detroit Lions’ Week-1 roster, and was active in six games before sustaining a season-ending knee injury. After his release by the Lions prior to the following season, the tight end landed on the 49ers’ practice squad last October.
Wick played college at the University of the Incarnate Word — a school not particularly known for football — where he was used as more of a blocker than a receiver. While Wick isn’t a speedster, he is a willing blocker at 6-foot-6 and 257 pounds. Although Shanahan prefers to utilize all of his tight ends in the passing game, if the 49ers choose to replace Paulsen with a run-blocking tight end, Wick is the best candidate to fit the bill.
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