The tight end is one of the most versatile tools in an offense’s arsenal. They can stay behind and help protect the quarterback; or they can run out for a pass and create mismatches in the passing game due to their size and quickness. Linebackers have a difficult time keeping up with their speed, and the tight end will tower over the defensive backs making them difficult to defend.
Some teams use the tight end more often than others in the passing game. For example, in New England, over the course of a single season, on average, one out every four pass attempts from Tom Brady will go to the tight end. Whereas in Green Bay, on average, it’s more like one out of every six of Aaron Rodgers pass attempts, will go to the tight end.
So, the big question is: What expectations can we have for the 49ers TE group going into Kyle Shanahan’s second year as head coach?
First off, we need to take a right at the stop sign and stroll down memory lane. In his ten years of coaching, Shanahan, except for the 2010 season in Washington, has been conservative when targeting the tight end.
In the 2010 season, Washington’s leading receivers were 39-year-old Joey Galloway, 31-year-old Santana Moss, and Anthony Armstrong. After spending two years in the arena league, Armstrong had spent his first two professional seasons on the Lions’ and Redskins’ practice squads, before he was promoted before the start of the 2010 season. Chris Cooley, their tight end, ended up second in targets that season.
We can even see from Shanahan’s two years in Atlanta and his one year with San Francisco his offense targeted the tight end only 15.5% of the time, which equals out to, on average, only about two out of every thirteen pass attempts.
Even during the last five games of the season with Jimmy Garoppolo under center, the tight end was targeted only 17% of the time; and we must also remember, this was without a true number one wide receiver, or an explosive running back like Jerick McKinnon out of the back-field.
So How Does He Use Them?
Kyle Shanahan likes to use his tight ends more for blocking or deceiving the defense. One package in particular that he liked to run more than anyone else, while he was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta for the Falcons, was the “13” personnel, which Mark Schofield broke down in his article with insidethepylon.com.
In this formation, Shanahan will use three tight ends, two on one side of the offensive line and one on the other side; along with one wide receiver and one running back, either in the back-field or lined up as a receiver.
Schofield described how Shanahan used this same package to not only run the ball, but to pass the ball. Shanahan likes to use this package because it looks like an obvious run situation, but he can send his tight ends streaking down the middle of the field for a huge gain, or the defense can leave his wide receiver in a one-on-one matchup.
Okay, so what does this mean moving forward? Well first off, with Garrett Celek having turned 30 on May 29th, we can expect George Kittle, who will be entering his second year in the league, to be the starting tight end. Here’s a nice little stat nugget to help back this up: last season the snap count breakdown for the two tight ends was 50.91% for Celek and 53.82% for Kittle, expect most of the receiving yards and targets to come from Kittle.
We can expect Celek and Kittle to make the final 53-man roster, but who else?
Coming into the offseason the 49ers also had Cole Hikutini, an undrafted free agent from last season, spent half the season on the practice squad, was promoted to the active roster on October 14, 2017, but was placed on injured reserve on November 6, 2017.
The 49ers also signed Cole Wick on January 2, 2018 to a reserve/future contract. He had a short stint with the Detroit Lions after he was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016.
The 49ers also signed Ross Dwelley as an undrafted free agent following the 2018 draft. In his four-year college career, with the University of San Diego, he racked up 2,310 yards on 198 receptions and 26 touchdowns.
Hikutini, Cole, and Dwelley will compete for the third and final tight end roster spot going into 2018.
Kyle Shanahan has a gifted mind for offensive, and I believe in 2018 he will create plays that will deceive the opposing defenses and create mismatches that favor his tight ends. They may not receive a lot of targets in 2018 or gain many yards, but they will be utilized to block for McKinnon and keep Jimmy Garoppolo upright; and just when the defense thinks they’re staying behind to block, the tight ends will run right past them and catch a pass for a huge gain up the middle.
You can follow Matt on twitter here
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great content!