49ers Training Camp Preview: Who will step up to complement Kittle?
Jul 20, 2023, 3:00 PM
The San Francisco 49ers enter the 2023 training camp with a few questions across the board. While most of the roster is a ready-made Super Bowl contender, some areas could spell disaster for the franchise, especially depth.
The 49ers have accumulated top-end talent to feature on both offense & defense, but what happens if those marquee players get hurt? We all watched it happen last season at the quarterback position, with the team playing four different signal-callers leading into the NFC Championship game. The same can be said for other key positions, including tight end.
San Francisco has been set at the tight end position since drafting All-Pro George Kittle in 2017. A four-time Pro Bowler, the Iowa alum has amassed over 5,250 receiving yards, almost 400 receptions and 31 touchdowns in his six-year career.
Last season was another great year, finishing with a season-high 11 TDs while playing with four different quarterbacks. His efforts have not gone unnoticed, earning him a 96 overall rating in the upcoming Madden NFL 24.
— WayneBreezie (@thewaynebreezie) July 20, 2023
Despite his success, the Iowa Hawkeye is entering age 30 this season. And thanks to an injury history, it’s never too early for the 49ers to look at other options to help Kittle carry the load.
Here are a few of those options that will compete for roster spots at training camp.
Cameron Latu (R):
The successor to Kittle may already be in house for the 49ers, drafting two tight ends in the 2023 NFL Draft. The first was Cameron Latu of Alabama.
The former Crimson Tide pass catcher has NFL-caliber traits entering the draft, using his big body (6’5″) to find space in gaps between the defense. While he has a bit of a drops issue (11.1%), Latu still snagged 12 touchdowns in his final two years of college ball. He also amassed 787 receiving yards on 56 catches.
While his speed isn’t electric (4.78 40-yard dash), his splits suggest that he can be a future safety valve on intermediate routes for the 49ers. Only time will tell if that is that case, but by using a third round pick in April, John Lynch & Co. clearly have plans for him in the near future.
He had a solid minicamp in the spring, catching a few underneath passes in drills. He’ll hope to build off that in training camp to establish his spot on the depth chart.
Brayden Willis (R):
The other rookie tight end San Francisco has on the roster: Oklahoma’s Brayden Willis.
One of the last selections in this year’s draft, Willis is another big-bodied weapon for Kyle Shanahan to utilize on offense. The former sooner showcased catching, route running and some blocking skills at the colligate level, likely the reason the 49ers took him in the seventh round. Willis, 23, had his best collegiate season in 2022, finishing with 514 yards on 39 catches and seven TDs.
While Latu likely has the upper hand, given his draft status, don’t be surprised to see Willis compete with him for a roster spot. The Texas native was very spry in spring workouts, effective in both the passing & running game for the 49ers. That’s one part of his game that separates him from Latu, a below-average run blocker at the moment.
A lot can change over the course of a month, but don’t be shocked if the latter ends up the backup to Kittle when the season starts.
Now to the veterans in the room.
Oak Ridge High School alum, Ross Dwelley, has been with San Francisco seen going undrafted in 2018. Hitting the market in the spring, the tight end decided to re-up with the Red & Gold for a sixth season. Still only 28-years-old, Dwelley has 506 yards on 43 catches and five TDs in his NFL tenure.
The NorCal native is well liked by TE coach Brian Fleury and the rest of the coaching staff, thanks to his willingness to be an all-around player on the field. Which is why one of Dwelley or Charlie Woerner will remain on the roster for next season, especially if the rookies struggle to grasp the blocking assignments early on.
Maybe one of them makes the practice squad, but it’s hard to imagine SF keeping five TEs on the 53-man roster.
The other adult in the 49ers’ TE room.
Woerner, 25, is entering his third season with the 49ers after being selected in the sixth round of the 2020 draft. A staple of the tight end hierarchy, the Georgia alum only suited up for two games last season. In his career, he has a combined 88 receiving yards with no TDs to his name.
Woerner was stuck behind Dwelley and the now-departed Tyler Kroft on the roster last season. The arrivals of two rookie TEs don’t help his case for the 2023 season as well. But, if Latu and Willis struggle to grasp the playbook during training camp, maybe, just maybe, we could see Woerner stick around on the roster.
Other than that though, he’ll likely be cut when the 49ers have to trim to 53 men.