By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA, Calif.. — Hitting the field in pads for the first time in training camp Saturday morning, San Francisco has its best offensive day according to Kyle Shanahan. Headlining the day’s success were the 49ers tight ends, who gave a glimpse as to how important they could be in the regular season.
Jimmy Garoppolo will be surrounded by more offensive talent this season than the 49ers have seen in each of the past three years, but the tight ends could help the star quarterback more than any other group.
“They’re always important,” said Shanahan. “Sometimes when the coverages take the receivers away, tight ends got to step up.”
For the San Francisco offense thus far, receiving hasn’t been their strongest attribute — aside from Marquise Goodwin who has been a training camp standout. Garoppolo’s passing numbers, in turn, have been down.
Overall, Garoppolo had posted an unofficial completion percentage of 55 percent (10 of 18) between Thursday and Friday’s practices.
That number jumped to 75 percent (12 of 16 unofficially) on Saturday, though, as 49ers tight ends saw more targets than receivers or running backs.
Distributed between George Kittle, Garrett Celek and Cole Hikutini, the three tight ends saw seven passes fly their way during 11-on-11 drills on Saturday. Kittle — the most productive of the group — hauled in three catches, while Celek caught two and Hikutini one.
The only incompletion intended for a tight end in the first team offense came when Hikutini tripped over his own cleats on an out-route headed towards the right sideline.
Nearly all of the passes intended for these tight ends were thrown in the short to intermediate region, which reflected the luxury the position provided within the offense: A security blanket for Garoppolo when faced with a nagging pass rush.
Courtesy of defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who have found their way into the 49ers backfield quite often during camp, Garoppolo was forced to get rid of the ball early and often. Luckily for him, his security blankets were there to save the day.
Shanahan says this is what he expects of his tight ends.
“If you’re a guy who gets on a route, you’ve got to be able to do something for us because you never know when the ball is coming to you,” said Shanahan.
Garoppolo should be comfortable with tight ends, too, considering what team he was traded from. Coming to San Francisco from New England, Garoppolo played with one of the most productive players in the history of the position in Rob Gronkowski.
Although he didn’t see much field field time with the five-time Pro Bowler, Garoppolo has seen what the utilization of a tight end should look like.
Over the course of his nine-year NFL career, Gronkowski has posted 7,0179 receiving yards and 76 touchdowns, proving just how valuable a tight end can be in the right situation.
The early front runner for the starting gig at tight end looks to be Kittle for the time being. And after having a rookie season overshadowed by injury, Shanahan has high hopes for Kittle’s second year.
“He was banged up a lot last year and he came in very healthy,” said Shanahan. “He’s got a year in the system where he’s got a lot more confidence. So, he’s not thinking as much out there. He’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Even with the injuries, Kittle posted 515 yards on 43 reception. Even though he only found the end zone twice, his value looks to be more than just scoring.
Along with Kittle, there was plenty of “Celek Time” last season — a moniker given to Celek’s stretches of heroic receptions in games. Celek started in 13 games last year and racked up 21 receptions for 336 yards.
Hikutini played in just four games last year recording 15 yards on three catches.
Between the three, 2018 should see a lot of production from San Francisco’s tight end unit, and they may even prove to be the most essential.
– Reuben Foster looked good in 1-on-1 drills but regressed a bit in 11-on-11s. The second-year linebacker was knocked to his backside on a run play by the 49ers offensive line, much to his displeasure.
Foster also spoke to the media for the first time since his legal troubles subsided earlier in the summer. Stemming from the legal issues, Foster will serve a two-game suspension for violating the league’s conduct policy to open the year.
– Joshua Garnett and Mike Person split reps at right guard. While Garnett saw snaps with the first offense initially, the pair rotated regularly, implying that there is no favorite for the starting job three days into camp.