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The search for tight ends in the draft: Finding George Kittle a running mate

Perhaps we should ask how early is too early?

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The tight end group in the 2023 NFL draft is one of the deepest classes in years. Several players vaulted up draft boards following the combine. Dalton Kincaid (Utah), Darnell Washington (Georgia), Michael Mayer (Notre Dame), Luke Musgrave (Oregon State), and Tucker Kraft (South Dakota State) are all primed to leave by the end of the second round.

The 49ers met with nearly every tight end, formally or informally, at the NFL Combine. With Tyler Kroft and Ross Dwelley set to depart in free agency, the 49ers have Charlie Woerner, a blocking specialist, and George Kittle on the roster. The tight end position will be addressed in the draft.

Picking at the back end of the third round at pick 99 leaves the 49ers with an interesting conundrum regarding value and team needs.

Here are some potential tight-end targets available in the third round or later:

Sam LaPorta, Iowa

LaPorta has the yards-after-the-catch ability, breaking 30 tackles on 111 tackles over the last two years. Attacking the seam is his strength, and LaPorta lined up in the slot for 263 snaps combined in 2021 and 22. That’s not to say LaPorta can’t play outside, with 65 of his snaps coming as the outside receiver last season.

The only real knock in his game is blocking, but if LaPorta makes it to pick 99, Kyle Shanahan would utilize him as a pass catcher to pair with fellow Iowa alum, George Kittle.

Just for fun, here are LaPorta’s yards per catch totals: 10.0 (2020), 12.6 (2021), and 11.2 (2022). LaPorta also finished with the third-highest 40-yard dash at the combine at 4.59.

Zack Kuntz, Old Dominion

Speaking of speed, Kuntz finished right in front of LaPorta with a 4.55 40-yard dash time. An “athletic freak” might be an understatement for the 6’7” prospect. Kuntz has YAC ability and the speed to take the top of defenses. Great quickness off the snap and can wreak havoc up the seam with his speed.

His ability to gain separation with his burst out of breaks creates opportunities for highlight-reel catches downfield.

The question around Kuntz is, can he play as fast as he did in college? Also, Kuntz isn’t a blocker and profiles more as a big wideout.

Will Mallory, Miami

There’s a theme with the three prospects mentioned, speed. Mallory blew away the combine with the fastest 40-yard dash for all tight ends with a 4.54.

As a fifth-year senior, Mallory averaged 12.9 yards per catch on 42 catches. Mallory has an impressive second gear with soft hands. Splitting out wide shouldn’t be an issue with Mallory’s good burst off the snap.

Blocking may be an issue at the next level, but the 49ers are targeting a receiving threat.

49ers fans have dreamed of a dynamic two-tight-end set, especially in the red zone. These prospects can provide upside to make the offense even more explosive in 2023.