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3 reasons why the 49ers will invest in a tight end with one of their 3rd round picks

Help for the quarterback today while thinking about the roster tomorrow.

2023 NFL Pro Bowl Games Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The Niners have sought after a TE2 to supplement George Kittle and add to the offense for a few years now. We’ve seen them sign Jordan Reed, give Jordan Matthews a shot, draft multiple tight ends on Day 3 of the draft such as Kaden Smith and Charlie Woerner.

Unfortunately for San Francisco, neither of those options has panned out. But that hasn’t stopped Kyle Shanahan and company from taking swings at the position, and it’s unlikely to in this draft, either.

This upcoming tight end class is said to be one of the deepest in recent memory. The 49ers have taken full advantage, as they’ve seemingly met with every tight end that’s not going in the first round. ESPN went through each team and to parse through the latest draft buzz. For the 49ers, Matt Miller said the focus has been solely on tight ends:

“The #49ers don’t have a selection in the top 95 picks and have a great tight end in George Kittle, but a source with knowledge of the team’s plans say they have done more work on that position than any other team they’ve encountered.”

Instead of discussing “who,” let’s talk about the “why.”

Cutting ties with Kittle?

Some believe this is preparation for life after Kittle, who has played at least 14 games in four of the last five seasons. Kittle will be 30 in October, and is under contract through 2026.

Here’s a look at Kittle’s cap numbers for the next three years:

2023: $18.03M
2024: $19.84
2025: $17.53

Kittle is coming off a season where he scored 11 touchdowns. He scored 13 in the previous three seasons. The hot take, internet culture response would be that the 49ers are looking to sell high on Kittle and trade him, with difficult decisions surrounding young talent looming in the near future.

The salary cap will continue to spike through the end of Kittle’s contract. Trading arguably the best player at his position for an unknown commodity with a pick in the 100s is a terrible business practice. And that’s without bringing up that this is an organization known for successfully jumping through the hoops of the salary cap.

Life after juice

Kyle Shanahan’s offense hits on all cylinders when the five eligible targets are all a threat. That doesn’t mean the 49ers need five wide receivers. It’s five eligibles. To me, the Niners looking into tight ends is more about life after Kyle Juszczyk, a former college tight end.

The 49ers have Juszczyk under contract through the 2025 season, but Juice also turns 32 this month.

The most efficient personnel group for San Francisco last season was 12 personnel, which is one running back, two tight ends, and two wide receivers. Shanahan dictates the opposing defense with personnel and creates mismatches through formations.

But there aren’t enough snap counts in 12 personnel for the 49ers to qualify among the league leaders, as they only ran it 15 percent of the time, or 184 snaps.

Juszczyk is one of the most versatile offensive players in the NFL, as he could play five different positions in one series. When a non-Juszczyk eligible is in the game, there’s a clear drop-off.

Help for the quarterbacks

There are several reasons why investing in a tight end early makes sense for this team. You’re covered if there’s an injury to Kittle or Juszczyk, while you can groom the heir apparent to one (both?).

We also have evidence that Shanahan’s offense excels when there are two tight ends on the field. When there’s a tight end on each side of the formation, the defense has to honor the run going both directions.

A young quarterbacks best friend is a tight end. Here’s a look at Brock Purdy’s throwing chart from last year, per PFF:

That’s a lot of action over the middle of the field. Adding a tight end would further the notion that the team believes in Brock Purdy, based on where Purdy likes to throw.

If you go back to the graphic about the 49ers personnel usage above, whenever there were multiple tight ends on the field, they were dangerous. The defense assumes it’s a run, and that leaves 1-on-1 matchups for your five eligibles — with a good chance your second tight end gets matched up against their third linebacker.

A tight end may be more important than we think, which explains why the 49ers are doing their homework at the position.