Austin Hooper

NFL rumors: 49ers had 'soft talks' with Delanie Walker, Jordan Reed

NFL rumors: 49ers had 'soft talks' with Delanie Walker, Jordan Reed

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan loves him some tight ends.

They are essential to the way he prefers to run his offense. With players that line up on the line of scrimmage who can help in both the run and passing game, Shanahan is able to disguise any given play without offering any pre-snap hints to the opposing defense. 49ers tight end George Kittle is the best example of that kind of player, and clearly, Shanahan has used him quite effectively.

The 49ers operated out of 21 personnel -- a formation with two running backs, two wide receivers and one tight end -- 28 percent of the time last season, which was far more frequent than any other team in the league. San Francisco also utilized 22 personnel -- two backs, one receiver and two tight ends -- on 11 percent of its plays; only the Baltimore Ravens ran more plays out of that formation. 

So, it comes as no surprise that Shanahan places a high value on the tight end position. That explains why the 49ers reportedly looked into signing Austin Hooper in free agency despite already having Kittle on the roster.

Apparently, Hooper wasn't the only one.

The Athletic's Matt Barrows reported Wednesday that the 49ers had "soft talks" with free agent Delanie Walker in the spring, citing sources. Additionally, San Francisco has "shown a similar level of interest" in former Washington Football Team tight end Jordan Reed.

Walker formerly played for San Francisco, and Reed played under Shanahan when he was Washington's offensive coordinator. So, in both cases, there's a level of familiarity.

That said, don't expect the 49ers to sign either of them. They are limited in salary cap space, and with Kittle, Ross Dwelley and recently-signed sixth-round pick Charlie Woerner filling out the depth chart, there doesn't appear to be a need.

[RELATED: Report: Kittle, 49ers still not close on any contract talks]

Of course, if Dwelley proves incapable of taking more of a load off Kittle's shoulders and/or Woerner struggles to adapt to the NFL game, that all could change.

Until then, however, expect the 49ers to rely on their internal options.

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Why 49ers should explore David Njoku trade with Browns after demand

Why 49ers should explore David Njoku trade with Browns after demand

The 49ers have the best tight end in football in George Kittle, but reportedly were interested in adding Austin Hooper in free agency to form undoubtedly the best 1-2 punch at the position in the NFL. Nothing came of that, of course, as Hooper eventually signed a four-year, $44 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in March.

Though San Francisco never would have been able to offer Hooper that large of a contract -- the team has its hands full with Kittle's next deal -- Hooper's decision to sign with Cleveland could open the possibility of the 49ers adding another talented tight end. Ironically, that tight end happens to play for the Browns.

For now, at least.

Browns tight end David Njoku has requested a trade and would like to be moved before the start of training camp, his agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN's Adam Schefter on Friday. Cleveland reportedly expressed that it would prefer to hang on to Njoku, but the fourth-year player apparently has his mind made up.

"It is in David's best interest to find a new team at this time,"‬ Rosenhaus told Schefter.

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The motivation behind Njoku's request undoubtedly is tied to the Browns not only signing Hooper in free agency, but also using a fourth-round pick on Harrison Bryant -- who plays the same position -- in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The timing of the request isn't a coincidence either. On Wednesday, Njoku parted ways with his previous agent, Malki Kawa, and signed with Rosenhaus. Last November, Rosenhaus helped orchestrate a trade of another one of his clients, running back Duke Johnson, out of Cleveland after a similar request.

So, clearly, Njoku isn't satisfied with his current situation and wants out. It's understandable, not just for the aforementioned reasons, but also due to the fact that he was in Freddie Kitchens' dog house last season. Kitchens has since been fired and replaced by former Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, but apparently the damage has been done.

Njoku, 23, is coming off a down year in which he sustained a broken wrist and a concussion in Week 2. He appeared in only two more games throughout the rest of the season, hauling in five receptions for 41 yards and a touchdown. The prior season, however, Njoku was impressive, catching 56 passes for 639 yards and four scores. 

A first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Njoku is extremely athletic. He ranked in the 98th percentile in the broad jump (11-foot-1), 97th percentile in arm length (35 1/4 inches), 90th percentile in the vertical jump (37 1/2 inches) and 80th percentile in the 40-yard dash (4.64 seconds) at the NFL Scouting Combine.

To compare, Kittle -- who went in the fourth round of that very same draft -- ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at nearly an identical size, but otherwise performed worse than Njoku in each of those metrics. Kittle's arm and hand lengths also were considerably shorter.

Now, obviously, Kittle has developed into a force of nature and become the fulcrum of the 49ers' offense. He is a far superior all-around player to Njoku at this point, but if they played together, they'd likely both become even bigger mismatches than they already are.

Clearly, the 49ers like operating out of two tight-end sets. It allows coach Kyle Shanahan to have more creativity in his play-calling, particularly considering Kittle's excellence as a run-blocker. The reported pursuit of Hooper certainly was with that strategy in mind, and although Njoku isn't as good as Hooper, he could be a tremendous addition to San Francisco's offense.

Remember how dominant the New England Patriots were with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Both extremely talented players in their own right, they were nearly indefensible when put together. Kittle already is on that Gronk level, but the 49ers don't have a Hernandez-type to go with him. Njoku might be as close as they could get -- without all of the additional baggage.

Njoku will make $1.8 million this coming season in the fourth year of his rookie contract. The Browns also picked up his fifth-year option back in April, which will pay him about $6.4 million for the 2021 season. Though San Francisco doesn't have a ton of cap space to work with -- much of it has been set aside for Kittle's extension -- Njoku offers cost certainty for the next two seasons at a reasonable price. If the 49ers could get him without being forced to give up or get rid of something of major significance, it might be worth their while.

[RELATED: Report: Kittle's contract could land around $13M annually]

Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported Friday that the Browns likely would want a first-round draft pick in return for Njoku. That's downright laughable, and never going to happen. They'll be lucky to get a Day 2 pick from any team in the league, and San Francisco wouldn't do that either. A conditional Day 3 pick, perhaps? Now we're getting somewhere.

That might not be enough to acquire Njoku, but there's no reason for the 49ers to offer more than that. He would be a luxury for San Francisco, not a necessity.

NFL rumors: George Kittle's 49ers contract could land around $13M annually

NFL rumors: George Kittle's 49ers contract could land around $13M annually

The elephant in the room at this point of the 49ers' offseason is the absence of a contract extension for standout tight end George Kittle. He is entering the final year of his rookie deal which will pay him $2.1 million, and is due to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the upcoming season.

After cementing himself as the best tight end in all of football over the last two seasons, Kittle's inevitable extension has long been expected to reset the market at the position. Austin Hooper currently averages the highest annual salary of any tight end after signing a four-year, $42 million contract with the Cleveland Browns in free agency earlier this offseason.

Estimates for what Kittle could average on his next contract have ranged as high as $20 million per season, but the real number likely is somewhere between there and Hooper's annual rate due to the expected drop in league revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Athletic's Matt Barrows reported Wednesday that someone "in the know" told him that Kittle ultimately would get a contract extension averaging $13 million per season.

That's a far cry from $20 million, but as Barrows noted, it still would make Kittle the highest-paid tight end by a fairly wide margin. Though Kittle probably is worth more than that, the salary-cap uncertainty caused by COVID-19 likely will rule out the possibility of a market-shattering contract. The unprecedented situation could result in a creative deal.

[RELATED: Report: NFL preseason halved; 49ers-Raiders game remains]

The Athletic's David Lombardi recently suggested that it might make sense for Kittle and the 49ers to come to an agreement on a contract that is partially tied to the size of the salary cap moving forward. 

"The 49ers can offer Kittle a guaranteed base annual salary or signing bonus before using a percentage-of-the-cap scale on top of that to pay him commensurate to cap increases in future years, when the NFL’s revenue outlook should be rosier," Lombardi wrote. "That's just an idea. But since this is uncharted territory, creative contract structures cannot be ruled out -- especially if they help break a potentially problematic impasse."

Creativity aside, if an agreement can't be reached on a contract extension, the 49ers would still have the ability to apply the franchise tag to Kittle -- which would pay him the average of the top five tight-end salaries -- for the 2021 and 2022 seasons. That option obviously wouldn't provide Kittle with the long-term security he likely desires, but there's ample motivation on both sides to get a deal done for San Francisco's most indispensable offensive player.

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