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As 49ers scour tight end market, a look at their draft options to find a Kittle partner

© Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports


The 49ers are in the market for a No. 2 option at tight end. It was abundantly clear they did not have that last season. Levine Toilolo was a blocking tight end with little utility as a receiver, and Ross Dwelley showed flashes, with key third-down catches on multiple occasions, but he was inconsistent and doesn’t appear to have a ton of athletic upside.

Toilolo signed with the New York Giants for a two-year, $6.2 million deal, and the 49ers probably would have been in the market for another tight end even if he’d stayed. Early in free agency, it was reported by NFL Network’s Mike Silver that the 49ers were among the teams interested in the now highest-paid tight end in the NFL, Austin Hooper.

That report screamed typical Shanahan innovation by stealing a page out of the Patriots’ notebook (Shanahan revealed this season he watches a copy of their tape every week): re-create the matchup nightmare of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez with Kittle and a second star.

In an offense which prioritizes blocking and a zone run game, it makes perfect sense. Lessen the load on Kittle, the soon-to-be highest-paid tight end, and give another option when the other tight end is out there.

Per The Athletic’s Matt Barrows, the 49ers have met with Washington’s Hunter Bryant (reported first by NBC Sports’ Matt Maiocco), UCLA’s Devin Asiasi and Virginia Tech’s Dalton Keene (informally at the Combine) as well as free agents Jordan Reed and Geoff Swaim.

With that in mind, it’s clear the team will be making an upgrade there in some form or fashion. This has, however, been described as a poor tight end class. In terms of depth and overall quality, that will probably prove true. But there are at least six tight ends in this draft who could immediately supercede Ross Dwelley as the 49ers’ No. 2, and provide a genuine second tight end option.

Having watched substantial game tape on 17 of the tight ends in this year’s draft, here are my rankings:

  1. Cole Kmet, JR, Notre Dame
  2. Adam Trautman, JR, Dayton
  3. Harrison Bryant, SR, Florida Atlantic University
  4. Dalton Keene, JR, Virginia Tech
  5. Devin Asiasi, SR, UCLA
  6. Thaddeus Moss, JR, LSU
  7. Brycen Hopkins, SR, Purdue
  8. Hunter Bryant, SR, Washington
  9. Colby Parkinson, JR, Stanford
  10. Josiah Deguara, SR, Cincinnati

Below is a review of the top seven, Bryant, Parkinson (Stanford connection) and Chase Claypool, who is a wide receiver who has the frame to be a tight end.

Cole Kmet, JR, Notre Dame

Height: 6’5 3/4″

Weight: 262 pounds

Hands: 10 1/2″

Bench press: N/A

20-yard shuttle: 4.41s

40-yard dash: 4.70s

Best college season (junior year): 43 receptions, 515 yards, 6 TD

Projected draft range: 2nd round, first tight end off the board

Pros: Great release, first step off the line. Has tremendous footwork for a tight end. Extraordinarily deceptive with his route-running, sits down in coverage gaps at an impressive level for a college tight end. Very willing blocker, solid on run downs. Takes contact well, has strong hands and is physical with the ball in his hands.

Cons: Despite being a willing blocker, he fails to seal the edge, or hold finesse blocks very well. Despite his release, he lacks elite quickness as a runner.

49ers fit: Obviously a great option, but he’s likely gone before the 49ers can pick him. That is, the 49ers have other needs (wide receiver, corner, defensive tackle, offensive guard) that should probably be prioritized before a backup tight end. It also depends on if/when the 49ers trade down.

Adam Trautman, SR, Dayton

Height: 6’5″

Weight: 255 pounds

Hands: 9 1/2″

Bench press: 31 reps

20-yard shuttle: 4.27s

40-yard dash: 4.80

Best college season (senior year): 70 receptions, 916 yards, 14 TD

Projected draft range: 2nd-3rd rounds

Pros: Massive frame, very strong, escapes contact/holds well. Sits down in coverage gaps in a way very similar to Travis Kelce. Elite reliability as a receiver, attacks the ball at its apex and succeeds with many contested catcher. He has surprising wiggle at his size and sneaks away from coverage frequently. He’s a willing, physical blocker (recovers well on pass blocks), and couples that with shifty footwork for brutal efficiency on block-and-release routes. Great first step off the line, along with deceptive speed. Like Kelce, just seems to find himself open.

Cons: Had the weakest level of competition out of any player in this group. Struggled in pass protection, especially against quicker edge rushers going to his outside. Has a tendency to pop up and get high on blocks too quickly, losing his leverage.

49ers fit: It could be argued, and without much hand-wringing, that Trautman is the best tight end in the draft. The major knock on him is the fact that he played for Dayton in the FCS, the supposed second tier of college football.

Harrison Bryant, SR, Florida Atlantic University

Height: 6’5″

Weight: 243 pounds

Hands: 9 1/2″

20-yard shuttle: 4.37s

40-yard dash: 4.73s

Bench press: 13 reps

Best college season (senior): 65 receptions, 1,004 yards, 7 TD

Projected draft range: 3rd round

Pros: Lightning release, and just seems to find himself open with stunning consistency. Despite not being extraordinarily strong, he has a high motor and gets low to drive through defenders as a blocker with fantastic hand placement, both as a run and pass blocker (utilized on crack backs frequently). Couples his natural athleticism with reliable hands and knack for open space. Moves fluidly and seems to have a solid route-running foundation.

Cons: Not very strong, had an ankle injury his sophomore year. Could have some issues as an in-line blocker if he doesn’t put on additional weight.

49ers fit: Bryant is just about all you could want in a receiving tight end. He’s a contested catch fiend, and was fed the ball for good reason in his senior season. He looks like a wide receiver, but has the mentality and frame of a tight end. While his main deficiencies are as a blocker, it’s not for a lack of effort, and there’s no question that polish could be developed with the 49ers. He’s a small-school guy, but the 49ers aren’t shy on those (went to FAU with Azeez Al-Shaair) and his receiving skillset is elite.

Dalton Keene, JR, Virginia Tech

Height: 6′ 4″

Weight: 253 pounds

Hands: 9 3/4″

20-yard shuttle: 4.19s

40-yard dash: 4.71s

Bench press: 21 reps

Best college season (junior): 21 receptions, 240 yards, 5 TD

Projected draft range: Late Day 3, undrafted (projections are by people who haven’t watched his tape, I would expect he goes in the 5th round)

Pros: He’s maybe the best run blocker in this draft and does so with a relentless motor. Often sets a low base with his and gets great leverage and moves his man every time he does so. Has smooth release and while not a polished route-runner, his athleticism to the apex on high balls and after the catch is consistently eye-popping. Absolutely loves blocking and the contact that comes with it. Never really takes a play off in terms of halfheartedly blocking. Consistently set the edge on key rushes for Virginia Tech. Runs a lot of block-and-release and leak out routes like Kittle, highlighting his deception and athleticism with the ball in his hands after the catch.

Cons: Sometimes clumsy in his release, doesn’t have fantastic route-running footwork and can sometimes be stymied and look confused once the quarterback resorts to a scramble drill. Lunges a bit with his blocks, looking over-eager, so needs to clean up that part of his game. Didn’t have the college production, so there’s concern about projecting his success without much statistical evidence to support it.

49ers fit: If Keene stayed another year and splits out to tight end, he might have found himself in contention for the first three rounds. He’s that good. How he’s mocked to go undrafted is beyond me. Arguably the best blocking tight end in the draft, especially as a zone run fit, with tremendous physical talents and versatility, having spent his career as an H-back (hence the lack of college production), he could theoretically be Kyle Juszczyk’s replacement at fullback, and clearly has the capabilities to be the No. 2 name in the tight end room. His yards-after-catch ability and Combine stats are very Kittle-ey. Also grew up in Littleton, Colorado, outside of Denver — run game coordinator Mike McDaniel grew up in Aurora, another Denver suburb.

Keene’s measurables are 74.7 percent comparable to Kittle’s. (Keene’s stats displayed first)

Height: 6’4″ (same)

Weight: DK 253 lbs vs. GK 247 lbs

Hands: DK 9 3/4″ vs. GK 9 1/4″

Broad jump: DK 125″ vs. GK 132″

Vertical: DK 34″ vs. GK 35″

40-yard: DK 4.71s vs. GK 4.52s

Bench press: DK 21 reps vs. GK 18 reps

Kittle’s stats:

 

Devin Asiasi, SR, UCLA

Height: 6′ 3″

Weight: 257 pounds

Hands: 9 3/4″

20-yard shuttle: N/A

40-yard dash: 4.73s

Bench press: 16 reps

Best college season (senior): 44 receptions, 641 yards, 4 TD

Projected draft range: 3rd/4th round

Pros: Independent of his frame, possesses tantalizing athleticism, route-running and a sense of when to stop in zones. Attacks the ball in the air and makes contested catches frequently. Great release off the line.

Cons: Fails to use his size consistently as a blocker, gets too tall and doesn’t drive like he should. Has some questions to answer about lateral agility.

49ers fit: One of my favorite tight end in this draft. Mocked him to the 49ers in my first mock draft:

If Asiasi hangs around until Round 4, I think the 49ers would be remiss if they failed to move up to get him. He is a gifted route-runner with well above-average athleticism at his size (ran a 4.73 40-yard dash). The biggest knock on him is his blocking inconsistency, but he has the strength and willingness to improve there, as he spoke to at the Combine. That’s not to say he’s a poor blocker; he has generally solid hand placement and body positioning, but he could use some polish and improved drive. In a tight end room with George Kittle and tight end coach Jon Embree, blocking will be stressed above all else. Kyle Shanahan took a look at Austin Hooper this offseason; Asiasi could be the long-term Kittle partner he’s looking for.

Thaddeus Moss, JR, LSU

Height: 6’2″

Weight: 250 pounds

Hands: 9 7/8″

20-yard shuttle: N/A

40-yard dash: N/A

Bench press: N/A

Best college season (senior): 47 receptions, 570 yards, 4 TD

Projected draft range: 3rd/4th round

Pros: Solid release, stocky frame to take contact. Is a willing blocker and has solid, low center of gravity strength and sticks with his assignment down the field. Reliable hands and crisp route running despite lack of elite athleticism. Very, very difficult to tackle and utilizes his frame.

Cons: Gets too high on blocks, struggles with any clever pass rush move, gets back on his heels. Fairly short for a tight end and seems to lack breakaway speed.

49ers fit: I will not be the one to bet against a guy with the last name Moss. Aside from that fact, Thaddeus Moss has high upside as a receiving tight end and the willingness and staunch frame as a blocker to improve there. I have a hard time believing he won’t at least be a serviceable tight end in the NFL. A really viable possession tight end.

Brycen Hopkins, JR, Purdue

Height: 6’3 7/8″

Weight: 245 pounds

Hands: 10 1/8″

20-yard shuttle: 4.28s

40-yard dash: 4.66s

Bench press: 21 reps

Best college season (senior): 61 receptions, 830 yards, 7 TD

Projected draft range: 2nd or 3rd round.

Pros: He’s got great ability on stick nod type routes and sits down well in gaps on curls. Solid release, route-running and after catch burst. Naturally very athletic and a problem for smaller defenders in space. Very high athletic, receiving upside.

Cons: Truly disappointing as a blocker. Doesn’t push his assignment back with consistency because he looks both disillusioned and like he has no interest in blockingGets bodied by smaller defenders because he fails to use his size. Does not run through his defenders. He rounds off his some of his mid- to deep-range routes and lets the ball into his body. Has had some issues with concentration drops (see 3:13 above) and failing to be physical.

49ers fit: I’m not a fan of Hopkins’ game, at least as an in-line tight end. He’s projected by many to be the No. 2 tight end off the board, and in some sense I can get it, given the limited tight end options in this year’s draft and his production at Purdue. But Hopkins’ tape is a ways below the previous prospects in the sense that he’s not really a tight end, he’s a wide receiver, and there are far better wide receiving options in this draft, where he’d project somewhere like the 4th or 5th round. He’s not nearly physical enough or willing enough as a blocker to succeed in that sense at the next level, and even if he’s not relied upon to be the lead blocker Kyle Shanahan needs willing blocking from his players. If he were a late-round prospect, it would be a different conversation, but he’s expected to go early.

Hunter Bryant, JR, Washington

Height: 6’2 1/4″ 

Weight: 248 pounds

Hands: 10 3/8

20-yard shuttle: 4.46s

40-yard dash: 4.74s

Bench press: 23 reps

Best college season (junior): 52 catches, 825 yards, 3 TD

Projected draft position: 3rd/4th round

Pros: Was used as a wide receiver, and displays surprisingly clean route-running chops. He has a shiftiness to him, and breaks on in-cutting routes with a decisive first step. For a tight end prospect, he has wide receiver-type athleticism and the strength to create yards-after-catch possibility on every play. Stiff arms, confident hands and breakaway speed show up consistently as evidenced by the first play above. Makes catches in traffic on a consistent basis.

Cons: Needs to bulk up for the tight end position, and given that he was used as a wide receiver far more often than as a tight end, it’s difficult to tell where he stands as a blocker. In the few reps available on tape, he looks like he doesn’t consistently drive through the player he’s blocking, and gets too high with his arms and upper body. Gets eaten alive at the 30-second mark on a crucial 3rd and 1 here against Oregon. If he makes his block, it’s a first down.

49ers fit: Has run dozens of the same routes that George Kittle has and would very clearly be a capable receiving complement to him. Would immediately be one an appealing pass-catching tight end threat based on his speed and route-running capability. Whereas the 49ers have traditionally exploited talented blocking tight ends with physical upside to project their pass-catching value, they now need another catching threat from a tight end, of which Bryant projects to be solid. Catches the ball in stride and shoots his hips upfield, much like Kittle. The main question with him is how consistent he can be as a blocker. He didn’t show much willingness or ability at Washington, and obviously needs to put on weight. Given the emphasis the tight end room puts on blocking, and the fact that tight end coach Jon Embree is assertive in having his tight ends hit the sleds before practice daily, any tight end the 49ers bring in won’t have a choice but to become an excellent blocker. The risk with taking a guy like this is that they simply aren’t willing to put in the effort to improve there; that’s where interviews help.

Like Hopkins, he’s really a wide receiver and an abysmal blocker. The one thing that differentiates the two is that Bryant shows more willingness to block. In my view, if you’re a poor blocker, but make an effort, there’s room for growth. If you’re naturally divested from blocking, there’s not much hope. Bryant at least cares, and is a far more dynamic pass-catcher than Hopkins.

Colby Parkinson, JR, Stanford

Height: 6’7″

Weight: 252 pounds

Hands: 9 5/8″

Bench press: 18 reps

20-yard shuttle: 4.46s

40-yard dash: 4.77s

Best college season (sophomore/junior): 29, 485 yards, 7 TD vs. 48 receptions, 589 yards, 1 TD

Projected draft range: 4th through 6th rounds

Pros: Some of the strongest hands in the draft, uses his long arms to create space and has success as a pulling, backside blocker. Great catch-in-traffic potential and good archetype as a possession wide receiver. Has a lot of room to grow, especially coming out as a junior.

Cons: Really lumbering, slow. He takes too much time getting in and out of his routes and fails to use his size effectively as a blocker. Has made some spectacular catches but struggles to gain separation consistently.

49ers fit: Here is a feature on Parkinson reported from the NFL Combine. If he’s there late, like in the sixth round, and the 49ers are still looking for a tight end, he’s got possession tight end upside, but his blocking needs a lot work. On the bright side, he’s worked out with Stanford tight ends Austin Hooper and Zach Ertz over the summer and says he models his game after Ertz.

Chase Claypool, JR, Notre Dame

Height: 6’4″

Weight: 238 pounds

Hands: 9 7/8″

Bench press: 19 reps

20-yard shuttle: N/A

40-yard dash: 4.42s

Best college season (senior): 66 receptions, 1,037 yards, 13 TD

Projected draft range: Late 1st through 4th round

Pros: He is rapid. Strong hands, huge frame, just made catches all the damn time at Notre Dame.

Cons: Can be a little clunky with his route-running. Doesn’t seem to have any clue what he’s doing as a blocker, and it’s unclear how much his lack of effort there is solely position-based.

49ers fit: It seems like after a stellar Combine showing, his stock is rising. While technically a wide receiver, he’s got the frame of a tight end, and outlandish athleticism if that’s where he played. The real issue with him is whether you think he can develop as a true tight end, i.e. capable of blocking. When you compare him and Hunter Bryant, Claypool looks like he’s got the better frame to be a tight end, but does he have the same willingness to improve as a blocker and will he be there around the same time? He’s a draft enigma, as evidenced by the wide swathe of ranges he’s projected to land.

 

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