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.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
- Opening up the listener mailbag
- Hopes and fears for Sunday in Kansas City
- Roles for LBs Reuben Foster, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith
- Ahkello Witherspoon will bounce back
- Keys to the game vs Chiefs
Podcast: 49ers PFF Breakdown with Jeff Deeney
Podcast for Thursday, September 20
- Guest: Jeff Deeney, 49ers media correspondent for Pro Football Focus
- Injury report
- Reuben Foster activated
- Matt Breida, Deforest Buckner and Richard Sherman highlight 49ers early season grades
- Passing game could get right in Week 3 vs Kansas City defense
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