Kyle Shanahan is pleased with his tight ends. In fact, the 49ers coach said last week that all six are capable of making an NFL roster. “Yeah, we have some good competition there,” he said. “It’s going to be tough for the coaches, but it’s definitely a good problem to have.”
Over the last two seasons — when Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator — the Falcons kept four tight ends on the 53-man roster. The 49ers also initially kept four tight ends last year, although one of them, Bruce Miller, was arrested in San Francisco shortly after the final roster was announced and was subsequently booted off the team.
This year the 49ers have a fullback, Kyle Juszczyk, who could line up at tight end at times. Their longsnapper, Kyle Nelson, also could play tight end in a pinch, another reason they could go with three. Here’s a look at the six who will vie for the 53-man roster when training camp begins next month:
Blake Bell. This is Bell’s make-or-break season with the 49ers. He was a fourth-round pick by former general manager Trent Baalke. Bell converted from quarterback to tight end at Oklahoma, making him a bit of a developmental project with the 49ers. The team’s new regime, however, is unlikely to have much patience with Baalke’s pick, especially after Bell caught only four passes last season on a team that wasn’t exactly teeming with quality pass catchers. In his favor: At a legitimate 6-6, Bell has the best size of the 49ers tight ends and should be a red-zone threat. He compares somewhat to Falcons tight end Levine Toilolo, who is 6-8. Bell actually is faster than Toilolo having run his 40-yard dash two years ago in 4.8 seconds, good for a 255-pound man.
Garrett Celek. More than anything else, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch have been eager to add toughness to a 49ers squad that has lost that quality over the last three seasons. Celek is one of the few holdovers who has the quality. He’s a very good in-line blocker who has played through injuries that would have sidelined others on the roster. Shanahan said he studied Celek in Atlanta when he thought Celek might become a free agent. “I’ve been a fan of him throughout his career,” Shanahan said last week, a considerable plus for Celek. The tight end, however, had too many drops last season. According to Pro Football Focus, he dropped six of the 35 catchable passes that went his way last year. That tied receiver Torrey Smith for the team lead in that dubious category. What’s worse, his 17.1 percent drop rate was the NFL’s highest among qualifying tight ends. Celek had some drops in the spring. He also had a nice down-field catch in traffic in the recent minicamp that caught Shanahan’s eye.
Cole Hikutini. The 49ers pursued him more doggedly than any other undrafted rookie, and because of that he has a legitimate chance of making the final roster. In fact, if Hikutini stays healthy and shows progress this summer, it could prompt the 49ers to rekindle trade talks involving another tight end, Vance McDonald. Hikutini had an excellent 2016 season at Louisville, catching 50 passes, eight of them for touchdowns. He fell out of the draft after a knee injury suffered in Louisville’s bowl game hampered him in pre-draft workouts. How well he moves in training camp and the preseason will have a big impact on this position group.
George Kittle. Of the 49ers’ six tight ends, Kittle, a mere fifth-round pick, is perhaps the biggest lock to make the final roster. Why? Because he personifies Shanahan’s offense in that he’s equally good as a run blocker and pass catcher. He was a top target during the team’s recent minicamp, and while he had a couple of drops, he came away with more receptions. As a rookie last year, Austin Hooper had 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns for the Falcons. Those are solid numbers for a rookie, but Kittle’s could be even better in a 49ers offense in which youngsters could see plenty of playing time.
Vance McDonald. He is hands-down the most athletic tight end on the team, one who had not one, but two, touchdown catches of 65 yards or more last season. The catches were the 3rd- and 5th-longest grabs among NFL tight ends in 2016. The fact that McDonald was the team’s most explosive receiver last year led to him getting a five-year contract extension in December. That extension, however, does not appear to be a concern for the new regime, which, again, covets ruggedness. McDonald has missed 16 games over his four seasons with an assortment of injuries. Two of McDonald’s four seasons ended with him on injured reserve. McDonald had three drops on catchable targets last year, which is actually quite good considering his track record. His 15.8 percent drop rate over the last four years is the worst among NFL tight ends who have at least 75 catchable targets over that span, according to Pro Football Focus. The 49ers seemed quite comfortable acknowledging that they considered trading McDonald during the draft. If it results in better focus and commitment from McDonald, they could wind up with one of the top tight ends in the league. At the very least, it sends a signal that no one on the roster is safe, not even a guy who recently signed a five-year contract extension.
Logan Paulsen. He is distinct among this group for two reasons: At age 30 he’s the oldest true tight end on the 49ers (longsnapper Nelson is three months older). He also is the only one who has played for Shanahan. He entered the league as an undrafted rookie with Washington in 2010 when Shanahan was the team’s offensive coordinator. Like Celek and Kittle, Paulsen is an in-line blocker who can catch passes. Over a two-year span in Washington (2012-13), he caught 53 balls for 575 yards and four touchdowns. He and Celek may be competing for the same spot.