49ers

George Kittle hasn't reached his ceiling, 49ers tight end coach believes

George Kittle hasn't reached his ceiling, 49ers tight end coach believes

SANTA CLARA — 49ers tight end George Kittle had a record-setting second season in 2018 but his position coach John Embree still thinks he has a long way to go before he reaches his ceiling. 

Embree is obviously pleased with Kittle’s productivity last season but also sees where there is room to improve. The list of areas he's having Kittle focus on as he approaches his third season in the NFL is long. 

“His footwork, getting in and out of breaks, certain routes that he really, in my mind, struggles getting in and out of his break to be clean with it,” Embree said. “His weight, he has a tendency to lean back a little bit so just working on those things in certain routes to help him try to continue to take the next step.

“He left a lot on the field between drops and he and Jimmy [Garoppolo] not connecting. So yeah, he can do a lot more. He could do a lot more and not have the same numbers too.”  

Things may change for Kittle in 2019 with defenses focusing their schemes on the tight end. He could end up being used as a decoy, which is just fine with Embree, who knows that coach Kyle Shanahan will take every advantage he can find. 

“Kyle is very good at creating mismatches,” Embree said. “He’s very good at making the call at the right time to exploit it. I’m sure he will do some things that will help George try to build on what he did last year.

“But also, if he’s going to get that kind of attention, then we can get George as a decoy and get other people open and when they get open that will loosen people up and keep them in one-on-one match ups.”  

Embree has been coaching tight ends for over a decade and he’s worked with some of the best. He coached Tony Gonzalez when they were both in Kansas City so he understands the need to use his tight ends creatively. 

"It’s going to be one of those things that will vary week to week,” Embree said. “And I know Kyle, I’ve been fortunate to have coached some good guys and I’ve seen lot of things that defenses try to do to take away tight ends. So I’ll have a little bit of an idea of ways we can help him.” 

Embree also believes that while Kittle enjoyed the records he set, that’s not what is really important to the Iowa football alum or even Embree himself. 

“I think that’s the thing that makes George unique is that he doesn’t really focus on numbers and records and all that, and that’s when it happens for you,” Embree said. “You just go out and play and you just got to do well and focus on the next play. So, I think with George he could have a better year than he had last year and I’m ok with that.”  

Embree also believes that it doesn’t matter who sets records on the offense. They all support each other, and obviously winning games is more important. 

“This is one of the most unique teams I’ve been on with the camaraderie between the tight ends, receivers and running backs,” Embree said. “It’s really a good group. A lot of it is because the guys are young and kind of all came in together and growing up together.

“It’s not like a 12-year vet and a third-year player and there’s not a lot in common. That’s kind of helped the process too. I feel like everyone really does pull for each other.” 

Shanahan has repeatedly spoken about watching film on players when they don’t have the ball in their hands. Embree is the same and gave examples of why Kittle is so important to the offense.

[RELATED: Bowman left lasting impression on Kittle]

“Two of my favorite plays of his happened in the Green Bay game with George and they were both run plays,” Embree said. “You can see his passion and excitement for the game. And those are two plays he didn’t have the ball. With me, that lets me know I’m coaching the right kind of guy in that these number are great if they happen, but it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t, because he understands how he fits and what his job is and what he needs to do. 

“He’s one of our best pass protectors. He does a great job in the run game and we lean on him a lot. That’s why I’m proud of him the most. I know he can get a lot better and when he gets that cleaned up, he can be a dominant player.”

How 49ers could benefit from Cowboys mishandling Dak Prescott contract

How 49ers could benefit from Cowboys mishandling Dak Prescott contract

The Dallas Cowboys would appear to be one of the most likely teams to contend with the 49ers in the NFC this coming season, and they better do it, because they've backed themselves into a corner with some truly head-scratching decisions that seem likely to shorten their contending window.

Every team wants the best players, but in a salary cap-governed sport, that's simply not possible. The secret to building -- and maintaining -- a contender is getting production from the most key positions without having to pay according value. That's why the draft is so extremely important.

The Cowboys, it would appear, have disregarded that strategy. Last September, they gave running back Ezekiel Elliot a six-year, $90 million contract. Then, back in March, they signed receiver Amari Cooper to a five-year, $100 million contract. And finally, they failed to reach a contract extension with quarterback Dak Prescott at Wednesday's franchise tag deadline, which ultimately will amount to them either paying him more in the long run than they would have now, trading him, or losing him for nothing but a third-round compensatory draft pick.

Not all of the money in those contracts is guaranteed, mind you, but nonetheless it puts Dallas in a precarious financial situation, particularly given the expected drop in league revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

According to Spotrac, the Cowboys enter the 2020 season as the only team in the league that has a top-three cap hit at both the quarterback (first) and running back (third) positions, while Cooper's ranks 16th among all wide receivers. For the 2021 season, however, all three cap hits will surge upward, as Elliot's ($13.7 million) will lead all running backs and Cooper's ($22.0 million) will rank second among all wideouts.

As for what Prescott's 2021 cap hit will be remains up in the air. Since the Cowboys didn't reach an agreement with him prior to Wednesday's deadline, they cannot negotiate another contract with him until the conclusion of the 2020 league year. If they choose to franchise tag him for a second straight offseason, Prescott will make $37.7 million in 2021. 

If they sign him to a long-term extension, you can be sure it'll cost them more per season than it would have last week, as he'll be able to negotiate off of any other quarterback contracts signed over that span. Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, for instance, seems likely to sign an extension before Prescott does. And, if Dallas were to apply the franchise tag to Prescott for a third consecutive offseason in 2022, the cap hit would explode to an unreal $54.3 million.

Let's just focus on 2021, though. The Cowboys already have $173 million counting toward the 2021 salary cap, though they'll roll over approximately $10 million in additional cap space from 2020. Let's say they tag Prescott again. Suddenly, they're at nearly $210 million in expenses, which theoretically wouldn't be too hard to fit within the salary cap if it holds steady at $198.7 million. Of course, it's highly unlikely to hold steady.

The salary cap is almost certain to drop significantly due to the loss of league revenue resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. The only question is, by how much?
ESPN's Bill Barnwell laid out how cumbersome Prescott's 2021 cap hit could be depending on how much the salary cap drops. As he explained, if the salary cap were to drop to $150 million, "the $37.7 million the Cowboys would have to pay Prescott next year would feel more like paying him $51.3 million under their current cap situation."

You could argue that Prescott, Elliot and Cooper all are worth what they'll be paid in 2021. But if they're combined cap hits amount to $73.4 million, that's nearly 50 percent of a $150 million salary cap spent on three players. You simply cannot win in the NFL like that. Whatever the 2021 salary cap is, those three will take up a huge chunk of it.

Paying Elliot what they did was questionable, as there's an argument that's a waste of cap space at a position where you could find much cheaper alternatives, but still get similar production. Cooper's deal looks more ridiculous now after Dallas drafted CeeDee Lamb in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, as he projects as a true No. 1 receiver. Not reaching an agreement with Prescott now, however, might be the straw that broke the camel's back. It has been reported that the sticking point was that Dallas was unwilling to give him a four-year deal, and if that's the case, they're extremely likely to regret that in the not-too-distant future.

[RELATE: What 49ers can learn from Chiefs' deals with Mahomes, Jones]

Assuming Prescott doesn't significantly digress in 2020, he is only going to cost the Cowboys more moving forward. Not to mention, the closer he gets to unrestricted free agency, the more teams will be vying for his services, thereby driving up his price.

The Cowboys should be good in 2020. Great, perhaps. But while their present appears bright, it likely won't be long until they're facing a very dark reality.

49ers' free agency, draft options also working against Raheem Mostert

49ers' free agency, draft options also working against Raheem Mostert

From Week 12 through the entirety of the playoffs, Raheem Mostert's 760 rushing yards trailed only Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry's 1,154 for the most in the NFL over that span.

Henry was rewarded with a four-year, $50 million contract Wednesday that reportedly includes $25.5 million guaranteed and makes him the fifth-highest paid running back in the league in terms of annual average salary. Naturally, Mostert -- who also is seeking a salary bump to the degree that he has demanded a trade -- will be rewarded, too. Right?

Wrong.

Aside from the obvious facts that Henry is nearly two years younger than Mostert and has a far larger sample size of success, the Titans simply couldn't afford to not lock up their lead back for the long term. You can be a believer in Ryan Tannehill's resurgence if you'd like, but you cannot view it in a vacuum. Henry is the straw that stirs the drink in that offense, and it's not a coincidence that Tannehill had his best season yet behind the NFL's leading rusher.

Mostert did lead the 49ers in rushing yards last season, but he is nowhere near as personally essential to San Francisco's offense as Henry is to Tennessee's. For one, coach Kyle Shanahan favors a running back-by-committee approach, which is why you'll likely never see the 49ers offer a running back a salary similar to the one Henry got. There's also the argument that Mostert's breakthrough was the product of Shanahan's system, and that he might, therefore, be replaceable.

[SPORTS UNCOVERED: Listen to the latest episode]

It's not that Mostert doesn't deserve a raise. It's just that he's highly unlikely to get exactly what he wants because San Francisco holds all of the leverage. Assuming he isn't traded, he can either play for the 49ers or potentially risk losing an accrued season. And that leverage disparity doesn't even include the bevy of external options San Francisco could fill Mostert's spot with, whether in the immediate or the near future.

Let's go in chronological order, shall we? 

If we're operating under the assumption that Mostert will not play under his current contract, nor will he receive what he deems an acceptable raise, there are a few potentially intriguing options on the free-agent market. Shanahan deploys an outside-zone running scheme, so any free-agent back the 49ers brought in likely would already have to be familiar with those concepts.

All of the backs currently on the free-agent market are there for a reason, mind you. They all have certain knocks against them, but it could also be the result of an oversupply and lack of demand.

Devonta Freeman's best seasons certainly would appear to be behind him, but it's worth noting that the two best seasons of his career -- in which he made the Pro Bowl both times -- came with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons. And who did he share the backfield with during those two seasons? None other than current San Francisco running back Tevin Coleman.

There's Chris Thompson, who Shanahan surely had a say in drafting in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft when he was Washington's offensive coordinator. There's Isaiah Crowell, who spent his rookie season with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. Then there are veteran backs Lamar Miller, LeSean McCoy, Bilal Powell and others who might have varying degrees of experience in an outside-zone system, but might be better equipped to learn on the fly.

Again, each of those backs has some negative marks against him. But, as we've seen throughout Shanahan's coaching career, he can make magic with previously overlooked players.

That's just the current free-agent market. Looking a bit further down the line, next year's free-agent class could be absolutely stacked.

Obviously, you can remove Henry from that list now, but it's still quite a collection of big-name rushers. Many of them surely will be re-signed by their incumbent teams or be franchise-tagged, but some will sneak through the cracks. Again, the 49ers are unlikely to cough up a ton of money for a running back, but that abundance just further exasperates the current supply-demand dynamic that is working against Mostert.

Although the cost of those 2021 free-agent running backs might prove prohibitive for San Francisco, the same cannot be said for what is likely to be a loaded 2021 draft class at the position. Clemson's Travis Etienne, Alabama's Najee Harris (a Bay Area native), Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard and Ohio State's Trey Sermon headline the class. But there's tremendous depth within it, and the 49ers surely could add a talented back in the middle or later rounds at relatively little cost.

[RELATED: What 49ers can learn from Chiefs' deals with Mahomes, Jones]

Will Mostert get exactly what he is demanding? It's difficult to envision it playing out that way. The odds remain in favor of some sort of compromise, perhaps in which more of Mostert's salary is guaranteed.

In any case, there are a number of factors working against Mostert, both currently and down the line. He's not in the wrong for wanting his salary to be adjusted to meet his value. But that value is as much dependent on how he performs as it is how easily he could be replaced.