Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Welcome to week two of our analysis and discussion of the San Francisco 49ers 2019 roster players’ performance and what it could mean for the 2020 roster. We are breaking down the team by position groups (offensive backfield, receivers/tight ends, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, secondary). If you missed the first installment last week where we took a look at the offensive backfield and discussed some potential changes at the running back position, you can reach it here.
This week we will be looking at the receiver and tight end positions. My colleague, Matt Woolsey, already broke down the receivers’ performances in this article, but we will extend that conversation to include prophesizing what may happen this offseason, while including the TEs to the discussion.
In the table below, you will see all of the WRs and TEs who played last year, plus Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd, two WRs who spent last season on injured reserve, but are expected to be major cogs in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s explosive offense.
The TE position seems pretty straight forward. At the top of the position you have the player who scored the highest PFF grade out of any player in the NFL, “The People’s Tight End” George Kittle. Even though Kittle had to miss a couple of games due to a broken ankle, (he seriously missed two games with a broken ankle) Kittle was able to become the first 49ers TE in history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard-receiving seasons. His 85 catches, and 1,053 yards receiving led the team, while he tied with Kendrick Bourne with the most TDs caught (5) from a 49ers quarterback in 2019 (Emmanuel Sanders also had five TDs, but two of them came before his trade to the 49ers).
As the table above shows, Kittle is in the final season of his rookie contract, and is being grossly underpaid for his effectiveness on the field. His importance to Shanahan’s attack is so great and varied, that if you queued up a Kittle highlight reel you would see him dragging defenders with his facemask, stiff arming linebackers for twenty yards, and pancaking 300 pound defensive lineman. In short, Kittle can truly do everything needed by a TE. The run and pass numbers both went down from the season average with Kittle was out for two games. This offseason Kittle will get paid, and I mean paid. He will be able to buy Wrestlemania tickets for his entire family for the rest of his life, and it will affect his bank total as much as that Dr. Pepper you just bought from the soda machine will affect yours.
If Kittle is the can do everything TE every team wants, Ross Dwelley and Lavine Toilolo are his two strengths separated into two backups. Dwelley was the primary pass catching TE when Kittle went down, with Toilolo stepping in to be a third tackle along the offensive line. A second-year player who wasn’t asked to do a lot as a rookie, Dwelley stepped in a delivered when he needed to, catching a pair TDs in the 49ers’ Week 11 win over the Cardinals, as well as a couple other clutch catches during the fourth quarter throughout the season to help keep the offense moving. Dwelley is a restricted free agent (RFA), which means that he will have no choice but to re-sign with the 49ers at what will probably be the league minimum.
Toilolo only caught two passes on the season, but he is such an immovable object in the run game that he will also likely be brought back in order to give the team full consistency at the TE position. Toilolo was with Shanahan in Atlanta, and was brought in last offseason. Both Dwelley’s and Toilolo’s knowledge of Shanahan’s system will also help keep them in the building as the playbook is notoriously complex and takes time for players to fully understand. Shanahan is also a fan of players who can fill in for other positions, making his active game roster easier to manipulate, and Toilolo can play tackle. He was asked to do so with Atlanta in a game, and if both tackles went down in a game, Shanahan would possibly do the same in San Francisco. Toilolo will have to be re-signed as well, and being a seven-year veteran; he will be a little more expensive than Dwelley, but still manageable.
No position group underwhelmed early on in the season like the WRs. Taylor, who Shanahan said was the most impressive WR in the offseason program went out with a foot injury before the season even started. Third-round draft pick Hurd went to the IR with a back injury after scoring two TDs against the Dallas Cowboys in the first week of the preseason. Dante Pettis, who many viewed as the future WR1 going into the season, never delivered on those expectations. Although he caught a couple of big TDs, including the game-winner against the Pittsburg Steelers, by the end of the season Pettis was either a healthy scratch or a paid spectator week-in and week-out. Second-round draft pick Deebo Samuel started the season as likely to drop the ball as much as catch it on any given play.
This trend continued until general manager John Lynch decided the answer wasn’t on the roster and shipped their 2020 third and fourth round draft picks for Emmanuel Sanders and the Broncos 2020 fifth round draft pick. Sanders came in to his first game against the Carolina Panthers in week eight and caught a TD to cap the first drive of the game and ended the game with 4 catches 25 yards and that TD. The next week against the Arizona Cardinals he was even more impressive, putting in a stat-line of 7/112/1. The addition also opened up more opportunities for the likes of Samuel, Kittle, and Kendrick Bourne. Unfortunately, in the following week against the Seattle Seahawks, Sanders tore cartilage in his ribs. His production dropped off some until the New Orleans Saints game, when he exploded for 157 yards and 1 TD on seven receptions. In his ten regular season games with the 49ers, Sanders recorded 36 receptions for 502 yards, and three TDs. Those stats would rank him third for the season on the 49ers.
Bourne, the team’s leading receiver in 2018, became Mister First Down. All he did all season long is catch first downs and touchdowns. The UDFA has become a fan favorite, with his incredible energy and infectious celebrations.
Marquise Goodwin, Richie James, and Jordan Matthews all played minor roles in the offense, with Matthews being cut and then re-signed late in the season, Goodwin ending the season on IR after minimum use, and James was utilized primarily as a return man. Of the three, James will most likely be the only player back next season. He had three big plays, including the reception that turned the tables during the first Arizona Cardinals game. His subpar results in the return game during the Super Bowl may have the team go a different route on special teams.
Adding Taylor and Hurd to the mix, plus the bevy of good draft options this spring leaves everyone guessing who will be re-signed and who will be left looking for further employment. In Sanders’ opening press conference in the team he mentioned that money was good, but winning and having fun was his main priority now. This sets the stage for him to possibly take a hometown discount to finish his career in a WR friendly system with a top-ten NFL quarterback. If he does come back, that would allow the team to use its first round draft pick elsewhere, whether it is traded or not.
If I had to guess, and if the group stays healthy through the offseason program, my best bet on the group entering week one would be Sanders, Samuel, Bourne, Taylor, Hurd, and Pettis. Bourne should be tendered at a second-round level, making him affordable and under 49er control. That’s completely affordable if they cut Goodwin, making the Bourne signing cap neutral. That only leaves Sanders as the only question mark on his return.
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