clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

5 returning 49ers who should benefit most from Chip Kelly's offense

We look at the five incumbent 49ers who should be most excited to play in Chip Kelly's offense next season.

All eyes in Ninerland are currently fixated on Colin Kaepernick, his potential trade, and where that might leave the 49ers at quarterback in 2016. But with potential suitors effectively engaged in a staring contest with Trent Baalke for the time being, it appears unlikely any sort of resolution will come to fruition until after April 1 when Kaepernick’s base salary becomes guaranteed and the odds San Francisco releases him outright reach virtually nil.

So in the mean time, before draft coverage ramps up, it felt like a good time to peak away from the quarterback position and focus our attention on some of the other parts of the 49ers roster.

We’ve covered Chip Kelly’s offense extensively in the months since he was named the 49ers’ new head coach. But what about how Kelly’s offense meshes with the existing personnel on the roster? Over the next couple days we’re going to look at exactly that, beginning today with five players who should benefit most from Kelly’s arrival in San Francisco.

Blake Bell

With roughly 17 tight ends on the preseason roster and only one season at the position under his belt after transitioning from quarterback during his final year at Oklahoma, it appeared we wouldn’t see a whole lot of Blake Bell entering the 2015 season. But trades of Derek Carrier, Asante Cleveland, and Vernon Davis, plus Garrett Celek landing on injured reserve, meant that Bell was seeing significant action by the end of his rookie campaign.

The production — 15 receptions for 186 yards on 25 targets — was nothing to get overly excited about, but his late-season playing time did give us an opportunity to see how Bell’s development was coming along. As a receiver, Bell has the size (6-foot–6, 252 pounds) and athleticism Kelly covets in his middle-of-the-field targets. He’s the most natural pass catcher among tight ends currently on the roster, and has shown a solid catch radius and ability to make contested receptions in his small sample of targets. Bell should excel running the vertical routes (seams, corners, deep crosses, etc.) Kelly frequently asks his tight ends to run.

However, as I’ve discussed at length in this space over the past few months, the run game is the focal point of Kelly’s offense and Bell will also need to excel as a blocker if he wants to remain on the field. When writing about Bell shortly after the draft, I noted that blocking was his biggest problem spot. The good news is that, while he must continue to get stronger at the point of attack, Bell has already made notable strides as a blocker since his time at Oklahoma.

It’s far too early to say Bell will be San Francisco’s top tight end in 2016, particularly with Garrett Celek signing a four-year extension this offseason. But if Bell can continue to develop in the manner he has in just two years playing tight end, he should carve out a significant role in Kelly’s offense.

Bruce Ellington

Ellington’s time on the field has been limited (only 238 snaps) through two seasons. When he has seen action his usage has been uninspired, with the bulk of his 26 career offensive touches coming on spot screens or the occasional reverse. With Kelly in town, it seems safe to assume Ellington’s usage going forward will better suit his skill set.

Though he’s listed as a wide receiver on the depth chart, it’s best not to pigeonhole Ellington into a traditional position. Kelly has ample experience, both at Oregon and Philadelphia, working with these sort of hybrid space players, and I would expect Ellington’s usage to mimic the way Kelly deployed DeSean Jackson and Darren Sproles in many ways. (Note: This is different from saying Ellington is as good of a player as Jackson or Sproles.)

On some snaps, that might mean motioning across the formation and running a bubble screen as part of a packaged play. On others, it might mean lining up in the backfield to get matched up against a linebacker in the passing game, take a handoff, or be the pitch man on an option play. On others still, it might mean lining up outside and running a vertical route up the sideline.

Ellington might never develop into a bonafide starting wideout in a traditional sense, but as Kelly put it at the NFL combine last month, "[T]hat kid can do some interesting things. Then it’s our job to figure out how we can use that to help us win games." I would be surprised if Ellington doesn’t become a useful, meaningful player in the 2016 49ers offense, which is something you haven’t been able to say in previous seasons.

Carlos Hyde

If this were a one-man list, Hyde would be its lone name. Though it’s been an up-and-down two seasons for Hyde, who struggled both with injuries and finding running room behind an abysmal offensive line in 2015, no player on the 49ers roster profiles as a better fit for what Kelly wants to do offensively.

Hyde is at his best as a downhill, one-cut runner, when he can get his shoulders square, burst through the hole, and often, through defenders as well. That skill set is best suited for a zone-blocking scheme, and that’s shown in Hyde’s production during his time in San Francisco thus far. During his rookie campaign, Hyde averaged 4.67 yards per carry on zone runs compared to just 2.97 yards a pop on the gap-blocking runs preferred by Jim Harbaugh’s offense, based on my charting. While I haven’t charted Hyde’s 2015 season in the same manner, the 49ers were more committed to the zone-blocking scheme early in the season when Hyde was healthy and I would be shocked if the numbers didn’t tell a similar story.

As I discussed in depth back in January, the foundation of Kelly’s offense is the inside zone — a physical, downhill run play that utilizes zone blocking — which also happened to be the foundational play in Urban Meyer’s spread offense at Ohio State, where Hyde thrived in college. It’s a perfect marriage of player and scheme. If the 49ers can manage to be even competent along the offensive line, and Hyde can stay healthy, 2016 should be a breakout season for the former Buckeye.

DeAndre Smelter

We know less about Smelter than anyone else on this list, but his size and skill set makes him an intriguing fit in Kelly’s offense. It’s no secret that Kelly prefers big bodies at wideout, particularly his slot receivers, who often need to make contested catches over defenders down the seam. At 6-foot–2, 226 pounds, Smelter fits the bill.

After spending his collegiate career as the lone receiving threat in Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack, many aspects of Smelter’s game required significant polishing before he would be ready to contribute at the NFL level. In the Yellow Jackets’ offense, Smelter’s route tree was limited and he rarely had to deal with press coverage. We still have no idea to what extent, if at all, Smelter has been able to improve in those facets. The areas where Smelter did win in college, however, appear to fit well with what Kelly is looking for in his big slot receivers.

As you would expect when coming from such a run-heavy college offense, Smelter is a willing and effective run blocker, something that should earn him an extra gold star next to his name on Kelly’s depth chart. In the passing game, Smelter showed the ability to make contested receptions by going up and getting the football over a defender, which as we touched on earlier with Blake Bell, is a trait that Kelly values in his wideouts.

Until we see him in live game action, there’s no telling how much Smelter has been able to refine his game over the past year. But with a ton of uncertainty at the position after Torrey Smith, and a clear rebuilding season on the horizon, the 49ers could do worse than give a physically talented player like Smelter the chance for some on-the-job training in an offense that appears to be a solid fit for his skills.

Torrey Smith

After years of trying to get by with low-cost veteran wide receivers, such as Randy Moss and Brandon Lloyd, as nominal deep threats, the 49ers finally invested significant resources toward addressing one of their longest-running needs. Baalke opened up the checkbook and gave Torrey Smith the richest free-agent contract he’s ever handed out, giving San Francisco a bonafide deep threat entering the prime of his career. And then, the 49ers basically forget that he existed.

Shortly after the signing last March, I wrote, "If Smith becomes the next Mike Wallace, it’s more likely to be a result of external factors — Kaepernick continuing to struggle with his deep accuracy or Geep Chryst failing to utilize Smith in a manner that accentuates his skills — than Smith himself." And well, that’s exactly what happened.

Smith was targeted on just 62 passes, fewer than four per game, which was a career low by a wide margin (His previous low was 92 targets in 2014). Worse still, the 49ers failed to take advantage of his deep speed on the rare instances when they did throw the ball his direction. During his time in Baltimore, 41.2 percent of Smith’s targets came on deep throws (defined as passes that travel 15 or more yards in the air); in San Francisco that figure fell to 33.9 percent.

All in all, Smith had to be incredibly disappointed with how his first season in San Francisco played out. Luckily for him, there’s reason to believe things can improve in 2016. Few teams threw the ball deep more frequently than Kelly’s non-Sam Bradford-led offenses in Philadelphia. And because of the way most teams opt to defend Kelly’s offense, with a heavy dose of single-high man coverage, Smith should see more one-on-one opportunities on the outside. Now all Kelly needs to do is convince San Francisco’s quarterback, whoever that might end up being, of something Chryst seemed to discourage: It’s OK to throw the deep ball.