With tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel out for Week 2, the San Francisco 49ers need players to step up.
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will also need to elevate his game, but his hands will be tied behind his back without skill players filling the shoes of players like Kittle and Samuel.
That starts with receivers like rookie Brandon Aiyuk and Dante Pettis, but the team signed tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for a reason: to contribute in any way they’re asked.
The pair of new 49ers will have ample opportunity on Sunday as San Francisco takes on the New York Jets, but the question is how will they take those chances, and will it be enough to replicate Samuel’s and Kittle’s impact?
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With Kittle already missing an early game, the addition of Reed from free agency is already looking like a shrewd move. The former Washington tight end was one of the best in the league at his peak, and has shown flashes of that same ability coming up to the regular season.
Like Kittle, Reed’s insane athleticism gives him a distinct advantage over defenders, especially when being covered by a linebacker or corner that is either going to be slower or smaller than the 30-year-old tight end.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan excels at scheming players open, and it’ll be curious to see what he does for Reed specifically. Garoppolo’s strength comes from short-to-mid range passing, and finding his new tight end shouldn’t be a major problem in those areas.
However, if the Jets consistently get pressure on Jimmy G or are blitzing often, Reed may be called to block more, which could limit his production. Either way, there should be at least 5-6 times that Garoppolo looks Reed’s way on Sunday.
Sanu is not getting a ton of time between signing and playing, and he’s probably happy about that. The receiver was a key No. 2 and No. 3 for the Atlanta Falcons before things went south with New England, and this ought to be a fresh start under a coach he has plenty of familiarity with.
Sanu can make a man miss, but isn’t the electric, big-play receiver that Samuel is. However, he is a strong compliment to Kendrick Bourne and Aiyuk, who will instead get more explosive looks from Garoppolo in Week 2.
While Aiyuk’s return means San Francisco should have more success with stretching the field and forcing the Jets to give up space underneath, it will be on Garoppolo and Sanu to link up and expose those areas and remind themselves and 49ers fans of how tough it can be to deal with Shanahan’s playcalling.
Sanu might not end the game with double-digit catches or even targets, but when he is thrown to, he needs to make the most of these early opportunities and be the respected possession receiver he was in Atlanta under Shanahan.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, Mont. Reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier and join our 49ers community at Heavy on 49ers on Facebook.