A long, long time ago, the San Francisco 49ers drafted a 6’4”, 247-pound tight end out of the University of Iowa. Back in 2017, nobody was putting much stock in a kid named George Kittle, whose college career totaled 48 catches, 737 yards, and ten touchdowns.
Kittle rounded out an early roster of tight ends that included Vance McDonald, Cole Hikutini, and long snapper Kyle Nelson.
In the sixth round of the 2020 draft, the 49ers selected tight end Charlie Woerner out of the University of Georgia.
Woerner will not challenge Kittle for a starting job, but he does bring quality depth to the 49ers’ tight end unit.
Most of the scouting reports on Woerner noted that he was not used much in Georgia’s passing attack, but was an excellent run blocker. Woerner left college with 34 catches, 376 yards, and one touchdown.
But like Roy Neary sculpting mashed potatoes on a plate and contemplating its meaning, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan must have seen something in Woerner to add him to this year’s roster.
Woerner Means Kittle Can Play Anywhere
The tight end position changed on April 19, 1997, when the Kansas City Chiefs traded draft spots with the Houston Oilers and selected Tony Gonzalez from the University of California.
Gonzalez ushered in a new era of the tight end and offense: coordinators could flank their Y-receiver out wide against a 5’10”, 190-pound defensive back – an automatic mismatch – and run nearly any route in the book with success.
The world has witnessed Kittle lining up all over the offensive formation – he’s caught a pass as a fullback, he’s played a slot position and lined up outside the numbers.
As much as Kittle loves to block, the 49ers’ offense needs to create mismatches in the passing game – and there are few defensive players in professional football that can consistently hang with Kittle.
Too often, fans and experts silo certain players into positions. Tony Gonzalez changed what a tight end could do in pro football, and Kittle is the new breed of player. He can run a slant route as a slot receiver, a wheel route up the sideline, or flatten a defensive back on a run play.
Further, if Kittle draws bracket coverage, it opens up a throwing lane or another option for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
I trust that Kittle is more than happy to block first and catch passes second. But he is the needed fire of the 49ers’ offense – and a fire cannot be left to suffocate.
Woerner’s presence on the offense to take on more blocks allows Kittle to wreak havoc in opposing secondaries on Indian-summer Sunday afternoons.
But Don’t Buy the “Run Blocker Only” Hype
Fun fact: the tight ends on the 2019 University of Georgia football roster caught a combined 23 passes.
Now, maybe Georgia’s former offensive coordinator James Coley did not need the fleet-footed, iron-jawed tight ends to play a role in the passing game. If that’s the case, then NFL scouts should reconsider listing Woerner’s catch production and contested-catch success rate as weaknesses.
Keep in mind that Kittle entered the NFL with a stat line only slightly better than Woerner’s – and now Kittle holds the record for the most receiving yards by a tight end in a season.
Nothing is stopping the 49ers’ coaching staff from developing Woerner into a quality pass-catching tight end, a player who can take a short catch into a long gain.
Further, coaches craft plays around players.
Shanahan can easily start with Woerner’s strongest routes and build upon his successes. Even something as simple as asking Woerner to block for seven straight plays, and then leaking into the flat for a pass can result in a big play.
Don’t forget Shanahan once had Kittle fake a fall only to catch a pass over the middle of the field.
Woerner will have to battle to earn the third tight end spot on this year’s roster. If he’s smart, he’ll follow running back Raheem Mostert's example - going above and beyond what's asked of him, taking advantage of every on-the-field rep, and a lot of patience.
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