San Francisco 49ers: Why Devon Cajuste Is a Dark-Horse Candidate to Start in 2016
By Jerod Brown
The San Francisco 49ers have an abundance of wide receivers and tight ends on the roster but no clear-cut starters. Undrafted free agent Devon Cajuste is a dark-horse to start for the team in 2016.
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t draft a tight end in the 2016 NFL Draft. They selected a wide receiver in the sixth round. General manager Trent Baalke made it clear; the 49ers are not worried about the playmakers that will contribute in 2016.
For better or worse, the team seems confident that they’ll find a replacement for free-agent wide receiver Anquan Boldin. In Chip Kelly’s offense, three receivers are common. So, the 49ers are actually in search of two receivers to join Torrey Smith as the primary targets.
The tight end position is deep. And the players there might actually be worth something. But that is largely a guess, based on little previous evidence and mainly on a hopeful projection that guys will remain healthy and improve. That’s okay.
The inability to name concrete starters at these positions indicate that the competition to start is wide open. Undrafted free-agent Devon Cajuste is a dark-horse candidate to win a starting spot on offense in 2016.
Devon Cajuste likely went undrafted due to his lack of a true position. Cajuste measured in at 6’4″ and 234 pounds at the 2016 NFL Combine and he ran through on-field drills with wide receivers.
In comparison to that group, Cajuste actually tested well. Despite being one of the larger wide receivers, Cajuste had the fastest 3-cone drill time at 6.49 seconds and jumped 36 inches in the vertical jump. Cajuste is by no means an out-of-shape and plodding receiver, he’s well-built and impressively athletic for his size.
Many draft analysts considered Cajuste a tight end throughout the draft process–due to his “tweener” size–and his value fluctuated based on which position teams viewed him at.
Bleacher Report Lead Draft Analyst Matt Miller ranked Cajuste as the fifth-best tight end in this class in his NFL400 piece. I tweeted out MIller’s positive notes on Cajuste as an indication of why the 49ers might be interested.
The positives highlight the positional flexibility of Cajuste and seem to paint the picture of an athlete that Chip Kelly could do wonders with.
The 49ers have lacked a true redzone threat for years. Cajuste’s size and ability immediately lends itself to package plays at the very least. However, a quote from Chip Kelly about his preference in receivers makes Cajuste an even more intriguing option.
SF Gate and 49ers beat reporter Eric Branch discussed Kelly’s appreciation for larger receivers in early January. Branch referenced Kelly’s comments from 2014 that spell out what he is looking for in a receiver.
"“The most important thing for a receiver — and I know I talked about big people beat up little people — that’s more of a defensive philosophy for us…But at the receiver position, it’s your ability to beat one‑on‑one coverage. We see it so much. Honestly, I don’t think people really beat it. You’re going to have to catch a lot of contested footballs.“I think that’s one of the things that makes Riley (Cooper) such a good target. … He can muscle and go get the ball. I think people play defense so close in this league, that your ability to go get the football is really what kind of separates people.”"
Cooper–now a free-agent receiver–stands at 6’4″ and weighs 230 pounds. In terms of size, he and Cajuste are eerily similar. Cajuste is, however, a much more polished route-runner than Cooper was when he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
In 2013–Chip Kelly’s first year as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles–Cooper had the most successful season of his career. Cooper tallied 47 receptions for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. As a redzone threat, Kelly found ways to maximize matchups for Cooper’s size.
Cajuste, built like a more-athletic clone of Cooper, could have the same success. Especially on the 49ers, a team hurting for someone to establish themselves as a playmaker.
Should the 49ers experiment with moving Cajuste to tight end, there is evidence that Kelly can make him effective there as well.
Cajuste’s greatest ability is working from the slot and across the field. Linebackers aren’t fluid enough to run sideline-to-sideline with him and he is too large for most safeties.
In Philadelphia’s offense, Kelly utilized tight end Zach Ertz in a similar manner, moving him to create size and athleticism matchups that favored the team.
Ertz, operating as one of the Eagles’ primary offensive weapons in 2015, caught 75 passes for 853 yards and two touchdowns.
The NFL is increasingly becoming a matchup league. With large, athletic tight ends like New England’s Rob Gronkowski dominating defensive backs, it pays to have big guys that move well. At its root, that is an explanation for what Cajuste can offer the 49ers.
Chip Kelly’s offense employs more than the traditional two wide receivers. In fact, the offense routinely lines up three wide receivers and will even take advantage of two tight end sets, with both tight ends being primary receivers on any play.
Cajuste will simply need to establish himself as one of the top four or five playmakers on the team in 2016 and he should see plenty of opportunities to produce. As with many versatile athletes in the NFL, the positional label that Cajuste gets is less important than the coaching staff’s ability to get him on the field in advantageous positions.
Cajuste might not be the downfield burner that some teams look for in receivers, but he is a strong player with excellent hands that Kelly will covet.
NinerFans.com writer Ryan Sakamoto recently filmed clips of the 49ers’ rookie minicamp and fans may have been given an indication of Cajuste’s position.
Cajuste was asked about his willingness to move to tight end and he answered exactly as you might expected an undrafted player to. No qualms from Cajuste, he’s comfortable playing wherever the team wants.
Cajuste’s flexibility and willingness to play wherever the team needs him makes him even more valuable. With roster sizes limited, athletes that can produce at multiple positions are given an extra long look when trimming players.
Cajuste offers the size, athleticism and versatility that make him an immediate weapon for a creative head coach. Fortunately, the 49ers recently hired one of the most creative head coaches in the league. If anyone can find a way to make Cajuste valuable, it’s Kelly.
Despite a true position, the 49ers lack of clear-cut starters gives guys like Devon Cajuste a chance to impress throughout training camp in hopes of earning a starting spot.
Ultimately, the team is looking for playmakers to improve on a terrible 2015 season. The players, regardless of position, that give the 49ers the best chance of being successful will be the ones to start.
Although he went undrafted, Cajuste has as good a chance as any skill player on the 49ers roster of cracking the starting rotation. Above the common names like Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington, Devon Cajuste is a dark-horse candidate to start for the team in 2016.
Next: Breaking Down the 49ers Strengths and Weaknesses
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Sports-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. All physical measurements courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise indicated.