The 49ers suffered a blow by losing Jalen Hurd to a season-ending ACL tear, but that opens up the door for Ross Dwelley to make the 53-man roster.
San Francisco 49ers backup tight end Ross Dwelley saw his chances to make the team’s regular-season roster in 2020 take two hits, first when the Niners selected Georgia tight end Charlie Woerner in Round 6 of the NFL Draft, then again when the team inked veteran free-agent tight end Jordan Reed to pair with the first-team All-Pro, George Kittle.
Theoretically, head coach Kyle Shanahan could have kept four tight ends on his 53-man roster. San Francisco did this at times last year, and Dwelley’s rare-but-important contributions in 2019 certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
Regardless, however, he was squarely on the roster bubble with the addition of both Woerner and Reed.
Yet that changed during the initial on-field portions of training camp, namely when the 49ers lost second-year wide receiver Jalen Hurd to a season-ending ACL tear.
Hurd, who also missed his rookie season with a serious back injury, has yet to take a regular-season snap at the pro level after being selected in Round 3 of the 2019 NFL Draft. And while it’s going to remain a debate whether or not the Niners’ pick of Hurd will ever pan out, there’s no questioning the disappointment of not knowing what Hurd could have offered to Shanahan’s offense this year.
Except in Dwelley’s case, where there’s some plausible benefit.
Assessing Ross Dwelley’s role with 49ers
First, it’s important to note Shanahan doesn’t always subscribe to the idea of “offense by position.” In many ways, Hurd exemplified the idea of a “positionless offense,” as the wide receiver had the build of a tight end with a three-year college pedigree of a running back before transferring to Baylor from Tennessee.
In that sense, and as Niner Noise’s Robert Morrison pointed out, Hurd could have been pegged as a move tight end or H-back in Shanahan’s offense, using his big-bodied frame as a mismatch while having the traits of a running back once the ball is in his hands.
In contrast, Dwelley isn’t anything quite like this. He’s not exactly a yards-after-the-catch machine, known more for finding holes in zone coverage and going to the ground shortly after first contact. Dwelley also isn’t an exceptional blocker.
But he did flash a knack for making big plays last year when called upon, particularly when Kittle was out for two games with injuries.
Those efforts will have to show up for San Francisco during training camp, of course, and the depth tight end battle should be an intriguing one to watch. One of the worst things for Dwelley would be if he’s not showing up on the post-practice reports, but that’s not the case. At least not according to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn, who wrote the following after the fourth day of on-field practices:
"Beat backup strong safety Marcell Harris during one-on-one drills. Dwelley ran an in route, slipped to the grass, but popped back up and made the catch before Harris could recover. Dwelley is slick. And during team drills, he caught a 25-yard pass from Mullens while running a post route. The 49ers secret weapon had a good day."
Those are some traits an H-back would like to display, and it’s just as likely Shanahan would want to keep Dwelley around for that reason alone, in addition to serving as a reliable pass-catching option behind Kittle in case Reed’s lengthy injury history continues into 2020.
So, while Hurd’s injury is no question a setback for the offense, it does create a much better opportunity for Dwelley, the third-year pro, to make a spot for himself on the 53-man roster this season.