Kyle Shanahan made it clear this offseason: he would address the team's red zone deficiencies by adding playmakers. Matthews vs. Toilolo defines an under-the-radar battle for a roster spot.


In consideration of Coach Shanahan's "position-less" offense, attempting to project the 53-man roster for the 49ers is quite the ambiguous task. So, let's take a look at some upcoming position battles to see why I consider a TE and a WR battling for a roster spot.

Projecting the TE Depth Chart


TE1 TE2 TE3? Hybrid (Heavy) Hybrid (Light)
Kittle* Smith* Toilolo Juszczyk* Hurd*
Celek
* Roster Lock

Making a case for Toilolo…

Toilolo brings veteran experience to a TE group that may otherwise have Kittle (25) as its eldest member. Having an additional veteran presence is often a good idea.

In addition, he started multiple games for Shanahan while Austin Hooper was learning the ropes. After Hooper earned the starting position, Toilolo was utilized as a blocker and featured as a secondary TE option in the passing game. He did a good job on throwback passes, where he learned to slip behind the defense as he does here, in the playoffs vs. Seattle.

Also, Shanahan has kept three traditional tight ends on the roster during his tenure in San Francisco. This bodes well for Toilolo, as long as he performs well enough to beat out Garett Celek.

*Kaden Smith should be a lock to make the roster, and will likely be given every opportunity to take over the TE2 spot.

On the other hand…

First, consider that San Francisco has seen limited usage/production with its TE3 in recent years. In 2018, Cole Wick and Ross Dwelley combined for a total of 50 plays, or just under 5 percent of the total offensive snaps (pro-football-reference).

Toilolo does bring a more established veteran presence, and he's a massive 6'8 target. Notwithstanding, his production is still limited to only eight touchdowns in five seasons (nfl.com).

Second, other players on the roster bring talent and versatility to the picture.

Kyle Juszczyk ("Juice") has quickly made his presence known on the team; he leads the league in percentage of fullback snaps taken. He's generally seen as the best fullback in the league, but he's clearly not limited to the position. We know him as an offensive-weapon (OW) and he is utilized all over the field. He also splits his practice time by alternating between both the TE and RB group.

*He is noted as "big" on the depth chart above because he can easily fill the demands of a "big" package featuring three standard tight ends.

Hurd makes the 49ers roster even more flexible and is why I think San Francisco will elect to keep only two of them this season.

After hearing rumors that Shanahan visited with Noah Fant (Maiocco), I figured Hurd would be a "light" Y/TE when Lynch grabbed him just one round after Deebo Samuel.

Coach Shanahan would go on to confirm Hurd's versatility, and football fans can only imagine how Shanahan will maximize his skill set. What we do know is that Hurd will be playing a "light" TE role, WR, and some RB. I think he will be used primarily in the "light" TE role, but we also see him at WR and in the backfield as a tailback (think Bourne's touchdown out of the backfield vs. Detroit in week 2).

To better understand Hurd's skillset, take a look at Rich Madrid's Film Room Analysis of Jalen Hurd.

Considering the versatility of Juszczyk and Hurd, the 49ers have arguably four TEs (locked) on their roster already. At a minimum, we can consider Juice and Hurd as half of a TE each from a strategic/personnel standpoint. They also complement one another's abilities (light/heavy).

Projecting the WR Depth Chart


Z X Slot
Samuel* Pettis* (Small) Taylor
Bourne Goodwin* (Big) Matthews
(Y) Hurd*

Many see a battle in the making between Trent Taylor and Jordan Matthews. Kendrick Bourne's name has also been thrown into the fire of potential camp cuts (Matthews could play "Z").

That said, in my eyes, Kendrick Bourne is a lock to make this team.

He led the WR room in yardage last season with just under 500 (NFL.com). Moreover, he represents what Shanahan wants in his receivers. He knows how to work a release, finds space at the top of his routes, makes contested catches, and has an uncanny wiggle that tends to produce the desired YAC.

Not to mention that in Bourne's rookie year, Shanahan kept him on the roster despite missing a meeting and starting slower than he would have liked. Shanahan was concerned another team may claim him and respected Bourne's skillset before he produced in a regular season game.

Taylor vs. Matthews

Taylor vs. Matthews will remain a storyline as we head into the season. However, I see it as more of a battle for playing time than anything else.

Taylor has been lighting it up through OTAs. Wide receiver coach Wes Welker has tagged Taylor as "easy to coach."

On the other hand, Matthews has been quick to impress and has generated noteworthy buzz in his short time on the team. He also brings over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns to a youthful receiver room.

Prediction:


I don't see a roster battle between Bourne, Taylor, and Matthews. Rather, I think it will boil down to Matthews and Toilolo, as two red zone specialists.

A Number's Game…

The additional roster spot at WR doesn't bode well for a TE3. In addition, roster spots become even more limited when considering San Francisco will likely designate five spots for RBs this season (including Juice & Mostert).

Given the 49ers' versatile weapons in Hurd and Juszczyk, I see them keeping "seven" wide receivers this season (including Hurd & Matthews).

While I wouldn't be surprised if either Matthews or Toilolo make the roster, don't expect both of them to make the final cut.

Added Weapons…

Toilolo (6'8"), Hurd (6'5"), Poindexter (6-5"), K. Smith (6'4"), Matthews (6'3"), Coleman (6'1"), Deebo (5'11")
  • Zach LaBar
  • Written by:
    Zach LaBar is a senior marketing student at CSUN, where he brings his passion for the 49ers to the Greater Los Angeles Area. He grew up playing football at Del Oro High School in Northern California, and continued to play QB at Moorpark College. He applies his first-hand knowledge of football to his analysis of all things 49ers. Follow him on Twitter!