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Evaluating 3 potential 49ers tight end draft picks

The 49ers appear to be zeroed in on tight end in the draft.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The 49ers’ need for a backup tight end behind George Kittle has been well documented, and they appear to be focused on addressing it in the 2023 NFL Draft.

ESPN’s Matt Miller reported on Thursday that a source with knowledge of the team’s plans said the 49ers have “done more work on that position than any other team they’ve encountered.”

Miller points to Old Dominion’s Zach Kuntz, Michigan’s Luke Schoonmaker and Tucker Kraft of South Dakota State as options in round three or early on day three of the draft.

I’ve already profiled Kuntz following reports of him having a virtual meeting with the 49ers. He is an outstanding athlete whose pre-draft testing saw him earn a perfect Relative Athletic Score of 10 and should have room to grow after making just 15 starts in his college career.

So let’s take a look at Schoonmaker and Kraft, as well as another tight end in whom the 49ers have shown clear interest, Alabama’s Cameron Latu, and how they might fit in with San Francisco.

Luke Schoonmaker, Michigan

Schoonmaker enjoyed a breakout year in his final season with the Wolverines. The numbers for his breakout — 418 yards and three touchdowns — may seem to be underwhelming, but his play in 2022 was anything but.

His RAS of 9.86 is an accurate reflection of how Schoonmaker moves on the field. He displays smooth and easy acceleration that allows him to be a threat on intermediate routes and downfield, while he also boasts intriguing change of direction quickness.

Schoonmaker plays with good sink in his knees on routes working back to the ball and demonstrates an awareness of when and where to sit down in the zone.

He is a hands-catcher with the concentration to make athletic grabs to haul in inaccurate throws, and his hands play a key role in his impressive blocking acumen.

Indeed, Schoonmaker regularly wins through an understanding of leverage and hand placement when blocking, enabling him to regularly hold his ground against defensive linemen and often seal them off and fold them in on run blocks. He displays composure when going up against linemen in pass protection and in the run game, where his athleticism is a clear asset.

Schoonmaker is a superb open-field blocker who climbs to his targets with ease, with his proficiency in springing backs for significant gains on the ground likely to ensure he gets on the field regardless of where he lands.

The Niners might want to see more from Schoonmaker with the ball in his hands, but a lack of dynamism in that regard shouldn’t be enough to prevent them from having a large interest in a tight end with experience of playing from every possible alignment who can successfully attack all three levels as a pass-catcher and open holes in the run game.

Tucker Kraft, South Dakota State

The 49ers haven’t shied away from picking from the FCS recently, and Kraft could tempt them down that route again with his high upside and varied skill set.

Kraft averaged 12.9 yards per reception in his final season with South Dakota State, his efficiency a product of athleticism that saw him post a RAS of 9.68.

His acceleration up the seam is exceptionally smooth, and the speed he shows once he gets the ball in his hands helps him gain yardage after the catch, where Kraft is more reliant on physicality than elusiveness.

An impressive ball tracker who can adjust to inaccurate throws, Kraft had nine touchdowns across his final two seasons with the Jackrabbits, but it is arguably his blocking that would most appeal to the Niners.

Kraft can seal off and drive defenders off the ball from an in-line alignment, though his best work comes at the second level. He is efficient in his climb and finding his target, and does an excellent job taking on defenders in space.

Though Kraft’s tape showed some instances where he lost the battle at the catch point to smaller defenders, he boasts the tools necessary to blossom into a tight end who can occupy the Y and F roles, meaning the Niners could potentially alternate him and Kittle between those spots in 12 and 22 personnel and still have both serve as receiving threats from such personnel packages.

A head coach who values flexibility as much as Shanahan does would likely be happy to pay the price of a third-round pick for that luxury.

Cameron Latu, Alabama

The 49ers had Latu in the building for a top-30 visit, typically a sign that a team wants to do more digging on a player.

It shouldn’t be taken as a sign the Niners are locked in on picking Latu on day three, when he will likely still be available, but there are plenty of reasons for San Francisco to be interested in the former Crimson Tide tight end.

Though he does not possess the same level of athleticism as the likes of Kuntz, Schoonmaker and Kraft — Latu’s RAS was 6.22 — he has a track record of producing in several areas for a college football heavyweight.

With 12 touchdowns in his last two seasons, Latu emerged as a productive red zone threat for Alabama — one the Tide could rely on in part because of the consistency of his hands. Latu is a hands-catcher whose size naturally allows him to elevate for the ball and who regularly makes catches outside of his frame.

As a route runner, Latu displays explosiveness off the line when working downfield and can make fluid breaks when running corner and out routes. He understands where to settle against zone coverage, with his success in uncovering on scramble drills making him a frequent target of Bryce Young on second-reaction plays.

Latu was deployed in-line, in the slot and out wide as well as an H-back and fullback, and frequently provided effective blocking from the latter two roles. While consistency in driving defenders off the ball is a concern, Latu can seal them off and has shown proficiency blocking on the move on split zone and counter runs.

A lack of upside after the catch would not appear to mesh well with what the 49ers are looking for at tight end, but Latu’s well-rounded skill set in other areas could make him an excellent value as their prospective new TE2.