Is Charlie Woerner the Key to Unlocking the 49ers Offense?
This question is incredibly easy to dismiss as nonsense. How could a rookie sixth-round pick be the player that elevates head coach Kyle Shanahan’s high-powered offense? Charlie Woerner sits behind both George Kittle and Ross Dwelley on the tight end depth chart entering training camp. He only amassed 34 catches, 376 yards and 1 touchdown during his entire four years at the University of Georgia. What could he possibly bring to the table that sees him do anything other than being a healthy scratch each week?
What Woerner lacked in receiving numbers during his college years, he made up for in spades with his superb blocking. At 6’5”, 244lbs with a 4.78-second 40-yard dash, he also makes the marks for athleticism that teams are looking for at the NFL level. Most importantly, Woerner has learned how to effectively block in space using his athleticism. The Bulldogs often used him all over by lining him up in the slot, at h-back, inline TE and even all the way out wide. This is remarkably similar to how Shanahan implements certain players now.
Kittle and offensive weapon Kyle Juszczyk have proven to be the driving force behind the 49ers’ offense. The running game and passing attack are much more potent when both players are on the field. Their versatility allows Shanahan to disguise exactly what the offense is doing and keeps the defense on their toes. While it is clear that Woerner would not be able to step into either of their shoes as a receiving threat from day one, the pair missed a combined six games last year and the offense took a notable step back during that time. Woerner, however, could being the blocking presence that was sorely missing during their absences.
That said, Kittle is one of the best tight ends in the league and his ability as a pass catcher is nearly unmatched. His talent poses a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators and keeps linebackers up at night. Woerner is not that guy. He enters the NFL rough around the edges as a pass-catching tight end. Because he was not asked to do it often at UGA, his route running can be particularly predictable, causing him to generate little separation. Once he has the ball in his hands, Woerner isn’t even playing the same sport as Kittle, who is a threat to take every pass all the way to paydirt. Woerner’s after-catch abilities can be summed up as “at least he doesn’t fumble the ball.”
Woerner’s earliest avenue to playing time would be giving Juszczyk a spell during games. His above-mentioned versatility plays directly into Shanahan’s philosophy of positionless offensive players. Receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk can both expect to be getting the football on jet sweeps and Woerner’s blocking prowess in the open field could spring them for huge gains.
With Juszczyk entering the final year of his contract, the 49ers may have drafted his replacement in Charlie Woerner. Will he be the key for Shanahan’s offense in 2020? It’s unlikely. Could his playing time and experience this season lead to a much-expanded role in 2021? This is likely the plan for the rookie. Time will tell if he is able to make it so that Kyle Juszczyk becomes expendable in this next offseason.
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