Tight end has been a position of strength for the San Francisco 49ers while All-Pro George Kittle has been standing upright. The problem is the groin injury that’s kept Kittle out of the first two games of the 2022 NFL regular season has exposed mediocre depth at the position.
It’s a problem one writer believes the Niners can solve by trading for a two-time Pro Bowler. This tight end has a Super Bowl appearance on his CV, along with invaluable experience in the offense called by 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan.
49ers Should Clear Cap Space for Super Bowl TE
In a list of trade targets teams should consider entering Week 3, Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox named Austin Hooper as a good fit for the 49ers. Knox believes the Niners should “consider Hooper as insurance while George Kittle continues to recover from a groin injury. San Francisco has Ross Dwelley and Tyler Kroft, but Kroft (one catch, nine yards) hasn’t made much of an impact, and Kittle has now missed 13 games dating back to the start of the 2020 season.”
It’s a good idea since Kittle’s status is still far from certain, with the three-time Pro Bowl star “limited” at practice on Wednesday, September 21, per 95.7 The Game:
Kittle’s absence through two games has put the onus on Ross Dwelley and Tyler Kroft, but as Knox noted, neither has made the grade. They’ve combined for a mere three receptions for 58 yards.
Hopper’s statistics hardly make for more inspiring reading, just two catches and 25 yards. He’s found himself on the outside looking in at a Tennessee Titans offense that’s featured rookie wide receivers Treylon Burks and Kyle Philips in the passing game.
The Titans may be overlooking Hooper’s skill set, but Shanahan knows all about it, having coached Hooper during his rookie season. Shanahan was offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons when Hooper tallied 19 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season, before adding three grabs, 32 yards and a touchdown against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, per Pro Football Reference.
Those stats reveal a comfort level with the Shanahan offense that makes a deal for Hopper worthwhile for the 49ers. The only issue is cap space, according to Knox: “The caveat here is that the 49ers have only $4.2 million in cap space. They would either need to clear room or convince Tennessee to eat some of the dead money on Hooper’s deal.”
Freeing up space is an effort general manager John Lynch should make. Especially given how much the Niners have missed Kittle.
49ers Suffer Without Kittle
Kittle’s increasing number of absences have only served to highlight his value to Shanahan’s team. Counting Week 2’s 27-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers’ record without their dynamic tight end is 7-9.
Not only is his presence as a pass-catcher missed, Kittle’s ability to move people as a blocker is also vital to the zone-stretch and read-option centric running game Shanahan calls. Hooper can also be an asset as a blocker, having spent two seasons with the Cleveland Browns, helping clear the way for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the ground.
A good example of 6’4″, 254-pound Hooper’s chops as a blocker came on this play for the Browns against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021. Hooper (81) was able to hook defensive end Chris Wormley (95), who outweighs him by 46 pounds.
Tight ends who seal the edges and hold blocks are important parts of any run-heavy offense, but there’s greater value from a knack for getting open in the red zone. It’s something Hooper has managed consistently throughout his career, like he did for this touchdown against the Pats last season, highlighted by Matt Waldman of FootballGuys:
There are many arguments for why Hooper is a good trade target for the 49ers, but the best one might not be just to have him cover for an injured Kittle. Instead, a two-tight end set featuring a pair of versatile Pro-Bowlers would add a different wrinkle to an offense that lost something new when mobile quarterback Trey Lance broke his ankle against the Seahawks.