For all the injuries that impacted the San Francisco 49ers in 2018, Kyle Shanahan's offense still performed to an admirable level.

Using both their second and third-string quarterbacks after Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL, the Niners ended the year 16th in total offense, 15th in passing and 13th in rushing, excelling throughout the season on the ground despite losing Jerick McKinnon before the start of the season.

All those numbers do, however, leave considerable room for improvement, with the 49ers 21st in scoring and a disappointing 27th in offense by Football Outsiders DVOA metric, which measures efficiency. In an offseason where most are calling for defensive additions, San Francisco would also be well served by finding offensive talents who can take that unit to the next level.

Natural strides should come from the return of Garoppolo and McKinnon, while there are plenty of other pieces, such as a much-improved offensive line and a star tight end in George Kittle, in place.

Yet in an offense in which disguise and misdirection play a pivotal role, it is clear the 49ers could benefit from more versatility at both pass-catching positions.

The Niners have plenty of young talent at wide receiver. Marquise Goodwin can play X receiver and the slot while Dante Pettis played X, Z and in the slot in his rookie season. They offer differing skill sets with Goodwin more of a speedster, though a vastly improved route-runner, and Pettis a receiver who wins largely because of the craft he puts into his routes and boasts deceptively good long speed after the catch. Trent Taylor and Richie James give the 49ers some variety in the slot with Taylor a shiftier possession type and James' game more based around his speed.


Despite the range of abilities among that quartet, the one thing the 49ers are lacking in their receiving corps is a dominant jump-ball threat to play the Z position who can make contested catches in the red zone on a consistent basis. Kendrick Bourne displayed some promise in that area and certainly did enough down the stretch to have a strong chance of keeping a roster spot for 2019 but, though Pettis also emerged as a difference-maker inside the 20 in his spell of late-season success, the numbers speak to a need for an imposing physical presence at receiver.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the 49ers passed the ball 53% of the time in the red zone in 2018, but were ranked last in the league in red zone scoring percentage, per Team Rankings. The numbers when throwing to wide receivers in the red zone actually made for reasonable reading. Per Sharp Football, the 49ers completed 60 per cent of their passes to wideouts inside the 20 for 10 touchdowns and one interception.

There is obvious scope for improvement, however, with the elite offenses of the Kansas City Chiefs (18 TDs, 0 INT), Los Angeles Rams (17 TDs, 0 INT) and Los Angeles Chargers (16 TDs, 1 INT) all faring much better when getting the ball to receivers in the red zone. The presence of Kittle and the return of McKinnon, who figures to serve as a passing game threat in the red zone, should attract the attention of defenses and open up space for receivers in the area of the field where it is most crowded, but adding a receiver with the skill set to overcome the congestion would be a substantial boost to the Niners hopes of converting more drives.

Any increased attention Kittle receives from defense may present a problem for Shanahan given the 2018 struggles endured by Garrett Celek, who played much of the season with a broken thumb and had just five catches on eight targets for 90 yards and a pair of scores a year after catching 21 balls for 336 yards and four touchdowns.

Not having an effective second tight end limits the 49ers options when they have two on the field, which they did on 17% of snaps in 2018, per Sharp Football.

Considering the Niners' preference towards one-tight end sets, the position may not be a priority this offseason. But Celek will be 31 when the 2019 season starts and the 49ers may be well served by adding a younger, more athletically gifted second tight end who can better capitalise on the extra space more attention on Kittle could open up and provide Shanahan more avenues with which to confound defenses by giving him greater incentive to use more multiple tight end packages.


In 2018 the 49ers used 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends) on just seven percent of plays -- a figure in line with a modern pass-happy NFL more concerned with spreading the field -- and passed on only 23 percent of those plays. With a more dynamic second tight end in the mix, that package could be an extremely effective use of Shanahan's personnel given the aptitude McKinnon, Breida and fullback Kyle Juszczyk have a pass-catchers.

Most will expect the emphasis to be on defense this offseason, yet in a league where the more sustainable route to success is by having a prolific offense, the Niners need to find ways to maximize theirs. Shanahan does a magnificent job making the most of what he has available to him and an increase in production will be naturally anticipated in Garoppolo's comeback season, but the best way to ensure it comes to fruition is by giving arguably the most creative play-caller in the business a greater variety of tools to work with.