Every day leading up to the start of training camp, 49ers.com will assess roster groupings as we get closer to the season. In this installment, we will address the tight end position and how the 49ers may look to take some of the pressure off of their All-Pro, Pro Bowl talent.
What is a Tight End?
A tight end is a position on the offense that is allowed to both catch passes and block downfield. Depending on a play's design, a tight end can serve as an extra blocker, receiver or ball carrier.
Which Stats are Relevant to a Tight End?
Due to the tight end position being so versatile, there are many things to look for regarding the success of a tight end.
As a receiver, stats to take note of are receptions, receiving yards, receiving yards per reception, receiving touchdowns and first downs receiving.
As a ball carrier, important stats are rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, first downs rushing and rushing yards per attempt.
When a tight end plays as a blocker, the stats aren't as definitive to communicate. However, pro football analytics site, Pro Football Focus, can formulaically delegate run-blocking and pass-blocking grades to each tight end in the NFL as a way to reflect their level of success as a blocker.
Pro Football Focus recently named their top 101 players of 2021, with tight end George Kittle landing at No. 16 for his elite receiving skills combined with his talents at blocking. This offseason, San Francisco looked to add support to the tight end position with pickups of veterans Troy Fumagalli and Tyler Kroft.
Last year, the 49ers saw the maturation of Charlie Woerner in Year 2 and Ross Dwelley in Year 4, who looks to maintain his TE2 role. With the goal to take some of the pressure off of Kittle, will someone step up to unseat Dwelley or Woerner as the 49ers primary backup? In an offense that deploys multiple tight-end sets, could a different TE see more time on the field this season?
Unlike years prior, the 49ers opted to go with three tight ends on their roster heading into 2021: Kittle, Dwelley and Woerner.
After Kittle suffered a calf injury in Week 3, Dwelley stepped up for the team's rivalry game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 4 where he completed a reception for 21 yards and a touchdown. Dwelley remained active through Weeks 5 and 7 alongside Woerner, who took over in Week 8, and the two played tandem at tight end until Kittle returned to the field in Week 9.
Kittle operated as a top receiver behind Deebo Samuel in San Francisco's offense last season, racking up 916 yards and six scores in the regular season while leading all NFL tight ends in yards per route run (2.35). His biggest game came in Week 13 on the road against Seattle where he completed nine receptions for 181 yards, 108 of them being after the catch.
Tight End Breakdown
The 49ers re-signed Dwelley to a one-year deal in March. Since originally signing with the team as an undrafted free agent in 2018, the tight end has appeared in 60 games (17 starts) and registered 40 receptions for 401 yards and four touchdowns. Last season, Dwelley appeared in all 17 games (two starts) and finished with four receptions for 51 yards and one touchdown.
In the team's spring OTAs, Dwelley was a frequent target for quarterback Trey Lance in the practices.
Fumagalli is another recent free agency addition to the 49ers, signed by San Francisco after a successful tryout during the team's rookie minicamp.
The tight end was originally drafted by the Denver Broncos in the fifth round (156th overall) of the 2018 NFL Draft. Throughout his four-year NFL career with the Broncos (2018-20) and New England Patriots (2021), he has appeared in 19 games (five starts) and registered 14 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
In 2021, Hudson spent his first season with the 49ers on the team's practice squad. Earlier this year, San Francisco signed Hudson to a reserve/future contract for the upcoming season.
Entering the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent in 2018, he spent time between the team's practice squad and active roster, appearing in 20 games and adding five receptions for 67 yards.
The star tight end remarkably completed his fifth year in the NFL after notching a third 1,000+ receiving yard season, joining the Pro Football Writers of America 2021 All-NFC Team and earning his third Pro Bowl invite. In 2021, Kittle played 17 games (including postseason), catching 78 of 108 targets for 1,018 yards and seven touchdowns.
Pro Football Focus ranked Kittle in second place of their "elite" category of pro TEs. Since entering the league in 2017, Kittle has obtained the highest overall PFF grade (92.8), highest receiving grade (93.4), most yards per route run (2.49), most yards after the catch per reception (7.5) and most targets per route run (25 percent) among NFL tight ends.
A new face to the team, Kroft signed a one-year deal with San Francisco in March this year. Kroft is the most experienced tight end of the 49ers, having appeared in 81 games since 2015 (Kittle has appeared in 67).
The tight end was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third round (85th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. Throughout his seven-year NFL career with the Bengals (2015-18), Buffalo Bills (2019-20) and New York Jets (2021), he has registered 101 receptions for 1,024 yards and 13 touchdowns. Last season with the Jets, Kroft finished with 16 catches for 173 yards and one touchdown.
Last season, Matthews switched positions from wide receiver to tight end and participated on the 49ers 2021 practice squad in that role.
"If you look at the game of basketball, it's going positionless – and I think football is headed that way," Matthews said about his transition to tight end. "You look at why George is so heralded in this league and it's because he blocks like a left tackle but he plays receiver like a slot... Playing tight end is just truly a mentality, I love the way the game's played in there."
Throughout his five-year NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles (2014-16, 2018) and Bills (2017), he has registered 270 receptions for 3,255 yards (12.1 average) and 22 touchdowns.
As the team's TE2 last season, Woerner's impact was seen predominantly in blocking although the tight end completed five receptions of six targets for 52 yards last season.
Entering the third year of his career, Woerner dedicated some time this offseason to training in Nashville, Tennessee alongside Kittle in Tight End University.