Niners Nation reported earlier today that the 49ers made a run at free-agent TE Austin Hooper.
Now, Kyle Shanahan has a proven soft spot for his former players, from Hooper to Kirk Cousins, and a bunch of ex-Falcons and Ex-Browns are on the 49ers roster. Ben Garland, Levine Toilolo, Daniel Brunskill, Mike Person, and Tevin Coleman played for Atlanta, and Shon Coleman, Raheem Mostert, Anthony Zettel, and K’Waun Williams were with Cleveland.
Still, upgrading from Ross Dwelley at TE2 makes a lot of sense, especially in Shanahan’s scheme. You only have to remember the dominant Patriots teams with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez to imagine what a play-caller as skilled as Shanahan could do in 12 personnel (a running back and two tight ends) or even 22 personnel (Juszczyk, the tight ends and an RB).
The core of Shanahan’s scheme is multiplicity, being able to run or pass in various ways with the same personnel: a fullback who can run routes and catch the long ball, plus an All-Pro tight end like Kittle who is probably even better as a blocker than receiving. And both are surprisingly fast for their size.
Another TE who can block and catch could bring devastating power to San Francisco’s run game while taking pressure off of Kittle as a receiver. To build on this scheme, though, you’d need a tight end who is excellent both at blocking and catching passes.
The free-agent market is thin, and the 49ers salary cap is tight, though 33-year old, 6-7” Darren Fells might make sense if he wants to play for a contender at a reasonable price. He is a strong blocker who had as many touchdowns — seven — like (former) teammate DeAndre Hopkins did last year. Fells would give the Niners an instant matchup weapon in the red zone and in short-yardage situations.
More likely, they would pick up a player in the draft. With the DeForest Buckner trade, they have two first rounds picks (at #13 and #31) and are looking to trade down to get more selections.
And day two is a good spot to find tight ends in a draft, as I discussed in the recent book “Legendary: the story of the 2019 San Francisco 49ers.” Zach Ertz was a second-round pick, Travis Kelce went in the 3rd and of course Kittle lasted until the 5th, though he single-handed raised the value of tight-ends across the league.
A lot of the better tight ends in this draft are not equally good at blocking and receiving, though. A pure “move” tight end or a stone hands blocker would defeat the purpose of playing two tight ends in this scheme.
I don’t claim to be a draft expert, but two TEs who intrigue me are Adam Trautman of Dayton and Albert Okwuegbunam of Missouri. Okwuegbunam is not as strong of a blocker and has struggled with injuries, but he has great athleticism and untapped potential while having succeeded already against SEC competition.
Trautman will have a bigger adjustment from his small school experience, but his versatility as a former basketball player and high school quarterback is a good sign. He played in the slot, at tight end and even as a Wildcat QB for Dayton, which will intrigue Shanahan, and SB Nation’s Dan Kadar was even more direct:
“If an NFL team is searching for the next Kittle, Trautman is the closest thing in this draft.”
The risk of getting another powerhouse tight end and running 12 personnel or 22 personnel, though, is that defenses might stack the box and stymie both your run game and your pass game. Kittle and Juszczyk are fast for their positions, but not compared to wide receivers.
A two tight end formation would work best with a real burner at wide receiver, and it’s not clear that Marquise Goodwin or Emmanuel “Burny” Sanders will be on the roster next year.
A move for a second stud tight end would really pay off if San Francisco also drafted a wide receiver such as Jerry Jeudy, Denzel Mims, or Henry Ruggs III who could take the top off of a defense and pull both his CB and a safety deep.