Cole Hikutini, a UDFA move tight end last year, was cut and signed to the practice squad at the end of training camp. He was promoted to the 53-man roster after 5 games, and played a total of 70 snaps — divided pretty evenly between offense and special teams — over four games before an MCL sprain ended his season. He finished with 2 receptions on 3 targets for a total of 15 yards.
The highlight of his NFL career so far has been the moment when teammate Kyle Jusczcyk immortalized his Niners Nation-created nickname, Dirty ‘Tini. Juice was of course immediately sheepish when a mic’ed up Brian Hoyer asked, “What did you call him?”
(Unrelated question: what the heck is the coverage DB (#3) doing in the main photo up above?)
Age: 23 (turns 24 on June 11, 2018)
Experience: 1 accrued season
Weight: 247 pounds
Hikutini signed a 2 year contract when he was promoted last year, for less than his original UDFA contract. He’ll make $550,000 if he gets to the roster this year, with no guarantees or bonuses; if not, the team keeps all his money.
Why he might improve in 2018
Hikutini has a year in the league, he’s been learning Kyle Shanahan’s system since the first day of OTAs last year, and his MCL injury is one that typically heals fully. Also, the team promoted him mid-season last year and made no move to acquire a tight end during the offseason, except for one UDFA, which suggests they feel good about his value as TE3.
Also, coach Shanahan used 3 tight end sets regularly in Atlanta and might consider doing the same here, though pass-catching fullback Kyle Juszczyk might fulfill that 3rd TE role to a degree.
Why he might regress in 2018
Hikutini has never been a blocker and there’s not much sign of this changing. He did go on IR last year.
Odds of Making the Team
Hikutini has to beat out two larger competitors: Cole Wick, (6’6”, 257) who had two targets over five games as a rookie in 2016 before getting injured, and UDFA rookie Ross Dwelley (6’5”, 240), who was criticized by an “NFC regional scout” on his NFL.com draft profile as too soft. Wick was on the 49ers’ practice squad last year but was not promoted to the 53-man roster even after ‘Tini’s injury.
There is strong evidence that coach Shanahan likes his second year TE. Matt Barrows reported that when Dirty ‘Tini and Trent Taylor were both injured on November 6th, “Shanahan said Hikutini would have been an option to replace Taylor as the slot receiver” if not for his injury.
And in OTAs, this week, Jennifer Lee Chan reports — exclusive to this article — that Hikutini was “very involved” in Tuesday’s practice. She noted that in 11-on-11s, “he caught one [pass] from each QB — Garoppolo, Beathard, and actually two from Mullens.” (Her complete list of snaps is in this article.)
At this point, that third TE role is Hikutini’s to lose.