49ers depth chart: Charlie Woerner should be TE2 when Kittle returns

August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers tight end Charlie Woerner (89) during the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers tight end Charlie Woerner (89) during the second quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

With 49ers’ star tight end George Kittle set to return from IR this week, the question becomes what to do with the TE2 role.

The San Francisco 49ers can boast about having one of the top players in the NFL at several positions. Those arguably include EDGE Nick Bosa, linebacker Fred Warner, and tight end George Kittle.

While Bosa and Warner have played in every game so far in 2021, Kittle has missed the last three contests with a calf injury, leaving the tight end role to be covered by veteran Ross Dwelley and second-year man Charlie Woerner, both of whom have spent their entire careers with the Niners.

Dwelley put up solid numbers in relief of Kittle during the 2020 campaign, finishing the year with 19 receptions for 245 yards and one touchdown while playing in all 16 games, nine as the starter. Woerner got off to a slow start to his rookie season, managing just three catches for 36 yards in 14 games and struggling to excel in the area that most was expected of him: as a blocker.

Coming into this season, expectations were set for Dwelley to be a solid upside TE2 to work alongside Kittle. While he is not the athlete the 49ers’ No. 1 star is, Dwelley showed admirable enough work in his small sample size last season to allow Niners’ fans to look forward to a strong season.

Losing Kittle thrust Dwelley into the starting lineup and moved Woerner up the depth chart, and while neither has come anywhere close to replacing the output of someone like Kittle, one thing seems pretty clear: Once Kittle is back in San Francisco’s lineup, Woerner should be the second tight end instead of Dwelley.

49ers should promote Charlie Woerner over Ross Dwelley

To be fair, neither Dwelley nor Woerner has been lighting the world on fire in Kittle’s absence. Dwelley has just three catches on four targets for 30 yards since Week 5, while Woerner has hauled in four receptions on five targets for 40 yards in the same time span.

But the most interesting development has been the usage rate since Kittle was put on IR prior to the team’s trip to take on the then-unbeaten Arizona Cardinals. Dwelley played 91 percent of the offensive snaps in Arizona, followed by just 48 percent in the 49ers’ loss at home to the Indianapolis Colts, and down again to 27 percent against the Bears on Sunday in Week 8.

Woerner, on the other hand, has seen his snap counts rise. From 32 percent in Week 5 to 54 percent in Week 7, and all the way up to 80 percent in Week 8, the former sixth-round NFL Draft pick essentially became the starting tight end with Kittle out.

And while neither men saw a drastic change in their targets (they both were thrown to twice against the Colts, while Dwelley saw zero targets to Woerner’s two in Week 8), there seems to be one key differentiator that has shown itself over the last few weeks.

Dwelley is a liability as a blocker, while Charlie Woerner is becoming the player the 49ers thought they were getting coming out of Georgia and possibly more.

It’s no real secret Dwelley has always been more of a “move” tight end who, at times, has been asked to block in key scenarios. And to be fair, as moments like last season against Los Angeles Rams star defensive end Aaron Donald show, he isn’t always useless. But this year, he hasn’t shown himself to be good enough in the run game and has committed a few key penalties in pass blocking as well.

Woerner, on the other hand, has stepped up as a blocker while also proving not to be a massive letdown in the passing game, something that wasn’t a clear part of his game coming out of college.

Against the Bears was possibly his best game as a pro, featuring a massive block to set up a long run by rookie running back Elijah Mitchell, one that Kittle himself highlighted on his Instagram story this week.

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At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much downside to elevating Woerner over Dwelley, especially once Kittle is back and ready to take over as the starting tight end.

Woerner is a massive upgrade over Dwelley as a blocker, something head coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff already appear to be aware of, while showing steady improvement as a pass-catcher, the major knock on him coming into the league.

If he continues on his upward trajectory, Woerner could allow the 49ers to have two tight ends who are both excellent blockers and threats through the air, even if the defense will still have to pay more attention to Kittle than Woerner.

The writing does seem to be on the wall, though. Woerner should be the second option behind Kittle as the season continues.

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