The 49ers didn’t get much out of tight end Ross Dwelley in 2021, but he’ll experience some pressure that can push him to be a clear No. 2 option.
Towards the end of the 2021 season, it was looking more and more like the San Francisco 49ers were going to phase out tight end Ross Dwelley.
Despite having a career year the previous season, Dwelley saw a massively reduced role and was poised to hit the open market in NFL free agency, suggesting the Niners were going to push fellow tight end Charlie Woerner into the No. 2 spot behind their All-Pro, George Kittle.
Amid a weak offseason class, both in free agency and in the NFL Draft, San Francisco elected to re-sign the 27-year-old Dwelley to a new one-year deal.
That wasn’t the only transaction, however, as the 49ers added further competition by inking another veteran, Tyler Kroft, to compete directly with Dwelley between now and Week 1.
Perhaps that’ll help push Dwelley to get back to the kind of numbers he saw in 2020.
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Dwelley saw 502 offensive snaps in 2020, yet that number fell considerably to only 195 last season.
Perhaps it had to do with Kittle’s health. Maybe Dwelley regressed, too.
What should fans expect from Ross “The Boss” Dwelley in 2022, though? Let’s take a deeper look.
Why Ross Dwelley improves for 49ers in 2022
So much of a player’s stat line stems from opportunity, and that’s precisely what Dwelley had for much of 2020 when both Kittle and fellow tight end Jordan Reed missed extended time with injuries. Likewise, in 2019 when Kittle missed two games, it was Dwelley who came up with some clutch catches in key moments.
Those opportunities were rare in 2021, though, as Kittle remained mostly healthy. However, with Kroft serving as a key competition piece to push Dwelley harder, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to see the latter wind up being more productive.
Another element is the reality of quarterback Trey Lance taking over under center. So far through organized team activities, where Kittle has been present but not actively practicing, Dwelley has been a key pass-catcher for Lance, and that chemistry could be something that carries over into the regular season.
Dwelley might not see the career-best numbers he enjoyed in 2020 as long as Kittle is healthy, but a stronger statistical season is certainly in the folds.
Why Ross Dwelley regresses for 49ers in 2022
It’s one thing to be a No. 2 tight end. It’s another to be a fifth- or sixth-best receiving option on an offense, which is what Dwelley essentially is at this point.
In addition to Kittle, Dwelley will have to fight for targets alongside wide receivers Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings, while rookie wideout Danny Gray will likely take away some potential looks, too, in certain packages.
Not necessarily being an elite blocker or someone who can line up all over the formation, Dwelley’s scheme use is limited, too, and not even his otherwise reliable hands can force an uptick in targets as long as the rest of the offense stays mostly healthy.
Plus, Dwelley might end up losing the depth-chart battle to Kroft, too, given the latter’s strong presence in the red zone stemming from his seven touchdowns back in 2017.
If Kroft displays that kind of prowess during training camp and the preseason, Dwelley’s roster spot could be in jeopardy.
Ross Dwelley’s roster chances, projected impact for 49ers this season
Should the decision come down to money, Dwelley has the advantage over Kroft, given the latter would carry only $25,000 in dead money if cut prior to Week 1. Dwelley’s one-year, $1.035 million deal carries $250,000 in dead money in contrast.
Granted, Kroft could ultimately push Woerner off the roster instead, thereby leaving Dwelley as the sole No. 2 option on the depth chart behind Kittle.
And that might be the best-projected guess as to how this positional group forms after camp.
If Kittle stays healthy, Dwelley isn’t going to see a massive uptick in targets, catches and yards. But it’s feasible for him to enjoy slightly better production with Lance at the helm, as young quarterbacks love targeting their tight ends, and Kittle will command no shortage of coverage this season.
As such, Dwelley might wind up securing a No. 2 tight end role once more, perhaps providing better statistical numbers than he had in 2021.