San Francisco 49ers: Who will win the backup tight end job?

SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 01: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers walks off the field after defeating the Oakland Raiders 34-3 in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - NOVEMBER 01: George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers walks off the field after defeating the Oakland Raiders 34-3 in their NFL game at Levi's Stadium on November 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images) /

George Kittle broke out for the San Francisco 49ers last year but after multiple offseason additions, who will emerge as the primary backup tight end?

George Kittle was able to break out in the second year of his career catching 88 passes for 1377 yards and five touchdowns as he finished eighth overall in receiving yards which ranked first overall among tight ends. The San Francisco 49ers currently have six tight ends on the roster, but two are new and nobody has claimed the backup role as of yet.

San Francisco would surely be happy to go back to the days where not only their starting tight end was great with Vernon Davis, but they had a backup in Delanie Walker who would start for most teams come in without the team missing a beat.

Do the 49ers have that guy on their roster now?

On May 15th, the 49ers signed former Stanford tight end Levine Toilolo to a one-year deal to serve as competition and depth. Toilolo is a six-year vet who hasn’t really had much production. Last year for the Lions he caught 21 passes for 263 yards and one TD. He’s never had more than two TD’s in a single season and at 6-foot-8, you would expect him to be more of a red zone target.

Despite the not so great receiving production, Toilolo was the second highest graded tight end in the NFC North according to Pro Football Focus, and that mostly has to do with the fact that he was rated as the best pass blocking tight end in the NFL last year.

Tight ends typically run block, but if there is more than one tight end on the field — which there will be with Kittle on the roster — his pass blocking will actually be useful.

Toilolo is also a solid run blocker and often shows perfect technique using his length to extend his arms and keep defensive linemen off of him. But Toilolo also keeps his legs chopping so that he drives him back as well, instead of just being content with keeping him engaged at the line of scrimmage.

When it comes to receiving, Toilolo doesn’t have the speed to separate and so is best used on underneath routes, but he can sneak a big play in here or there, which you see a lot of in his highlights.

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Toilolo worked with head coach Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He knows his strengths and Toilolo should be mostly familiar with his offense.

This probably played a big role in the signing as Shanahan runs a complex offense and Toilolo should be up to speed quicker. Because of that, Toilolo has a good chance of taking the backup tight end spot.

But the 49ers drafted a fellow Stanford alumnus this year who could be his biggest competition.

TE. Stanford. player. . 42. Scouting Report. Pick Analysis. Kaden Smith

Kaden Smith continued the trend of Stanford being “Tight End U” putting up 414 yards and five touchdowns his redshirt freshman year and 635 yards and two touchdowns his redshirt sophomore year. In an offense that loves to use tight ends in the running and receiving game like Stanford and head coach David Shaw do, he gives you a lot to analyze in his tape.

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Smith is not the type of tight end that is a match-up nightmare for linebackers and safeties due to his lack of speed, but he is a good receiver who knows how to find the soft spot in the defense and use his body to box out defenders.

You can see examples of that in the above video at (1:11), (1:57), and (4:38).

Smith is a decent blocker meaning that he won’t miss many blocks, but he doesn’t drive guys back either as he needs to clean up his technique. You can see an example of his run blocking needing work at (1:37).

Notice, he keeps chopping his legs which is good, but his feet are way too close together and his arms are not extended at all so he cannot get the right amount of power behind his blocks.

An anonymous AFC scout’s report on Smith’s NFL Network scouting report sums him up perfectly.

"“Kind of what you see is what you get. I am cross-checking tight ends and I don’t think I would take him until Day 3. Nothing really stands out.”"

Smith has a ceiling of a backup Y-tight end in my opinion, and with Kittle, that is all the San Francisco 49ers need.

The Longshots

The 49ers also have undrafted free agent Tyree Mayfield out of Wyoming, eight-year veteran Garrett Celek, and a second-year man out of San Diego Ross Dwelley on the roster. Of the three, Mayfield is the most intriguing even if Celek has the best odds.

Mayfield is considered a TE/FB/HB hybrid and there is no tape out there on him available, so highlights are the only place you can see his skills. This, of course, is not the ideal way — but his athleticism is apparent.

Mayfield ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at Wyoming’s pro day and you see that in his ability after the catch with how he’s able to get wide open against linebackers. He did not have very much statistical production in college, but he makes a lot of big plays.

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His blocking technique needs a lot of work, but he can hold his own against smaller guys. Mayfield’s best chance of making the team is due to his special teams skills. He doesn’t have a good chance of taking the backup spot, but he does have a chance of making the team and maybe developing into that role in the future.

When it comes to others, Ross Dwelley is totally unproven, and may not even make the team despite praise from Kittle about his progression this year. When it comes to Celek, nothing needs to be said to 49ers fans.

He’s been on the team for seven years and has been either a drop machine or extremely inconsistent. That said, he has had the backup job locked down for a number of years now and could very well still win the job despite his inconsistencies.

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In my opinion, Toilolo will start the season as the backup due to his knowledge of the offense. But don’t be surprised if Smith and he both get playing time early and the better man wins the job outright halfway through the season.