The 49ers have not invested much in the tight end position under Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, and you would be forgiven for thinking they don’t really need to this offseason.
After all, the 49ers have one of the best in the game at the position, having selected George Kittle in the fifth round of Shanahan and Lynch’s first draft in 2017 and seen him blossom into an all-encompassing force who is dominant in all aspects of the game. Kittle is coming off his most prolific season, one in which he caught 11 touchdown passes.
Moreover, the Niners head into the offseason with more pressing needs on both sides of the trenches and in the secondary.
As such, there seems to be little reason to place emphasis on adding to the tight end group this offseason.
But the offseason, and the draft in particular, is as much about building on strengths as it is addressing weaknesses. While Kittle is unquestionably a strength for the Niners, the depth behind him is severely lacking.
This year is arguably the perfect one in which to change that. Free agency presents several options, but the top tight ends on the market, which include Dalton Schultz, Mike Gesicki and Evan Engram, are likely to be out of the price range of a team with just $7.1 million in cap space, according to Over The Cap.
A draft class at tight end that is regarded as one of the strongest in years represents a more realistic avenue.
There are four tight ends in the latest version of Daniel Jeremiah’s top 50 and seven in Dane Brugler’s list of his top 100 prospects.
San Francisco is not slated to make a pick until the 99th overall selection in the third round but, given the obvious depth at the position, the 49ers are still likely to have a shot at adding more dynamism to the tight end room.
Kittle aside, that has long since been in short supply. Tyler Kroft’s impact after signing to a one-year deal last offseason was limited. Charlie Woerner offers precious little outside of the blocking game, and Ross Dwelley has gone from TE2 to a sporadic contributor who has provided few convincing reasons why he should be re-signed by the Niners.
And though there were positive noises about Jordan Matthews’ performances in training camp prior to his season-ending ACL injury, the reality is a team that relies heavily on multiple-tight end sets would benefit greatly from an infusion of new blood at the position. That would give them players beyond Kittle who can consistently serve as legitimate threats in the receiving game in addition to providing assistance to the run game.
Last season, the 49ers used multiple tight ends on just over 22 percent of their offensive snaps, per Joseph Hefner.
Eleven (one RB, one TE, three WRs) remains the Niners’ most frequently utilized personnel grouping, and they are more dependent on two-running back sets than those that feature multiple tight ends.
However, for a team and head coach that value multiplicity as much as the 49ers and Shanahan do, not having a second tight end who can give opposing defenses another threat to take seriously when San Francisco does line up in 12 and 22 personnel represents a missed opportunity.
With Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Kittle all on the roster, the backup tight end for the Niners is always going to be getting scraps when it comes to his share of targets in the passing game.
Yet in a 2023 season that could see a defensive drop-off considering the switch from former coordinator DeMeco Ryans to successor Steve Wilks and the number of free agents the 49ers have on that side of the ball, the offense may need to carry more of the load.
Shanahan’s group is one already set up to do that with the remarkable level of offensive firepower the 49ers possess, but the case for stacking the deck further is strong.
The San Francisco offense thrives in part because of the number of personnel groupings from which the Niners can run and pass the ball effectively. Selecting a tight end with one of their first picks in the draft could be viewed as an unnecessary move but, should the 49ers do so and successfully identify a prospect who can facilitate improved production out 12 and 22 personnel looks, it could prove an extremely astute decision.