Tight end was a position of strength for the San Francisco 49ers while All-Pro George Kittle stood upright. The problem is that the groin injury that kept Kittle out of the first two games of the 2022 NFL regular season has shown mediocre depth at the position.
It’s a problem one writer believes the Niners can solve by trading it in for a two-time Pro Bowler. This tight end has a Super Bowl appearance on his resume, along with invaluable experience on offense called out by 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
In a list of trade targets teams should consider entering in 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 have Ross Dwelley and Tyler Kroft, but Kroft (one catch, nine yards) hasn’t done much and Kittle is now missing 13 games since the start of the 2020 season.
It’s a good idea as Kittle’s status is far from certain as the three-time Pro Bowl star is “limited” to training on Wednesday, Sept. 21 95.7 The game:
Kittle’s two-game absence has blamed Ross Dwelley and Tyler Kroft, but as Knox noted, neither made the grade. They teamed for just three receptions for 58 yards.
Hopper’s stats couldn’t be more inspiring to read, just two catches and 25 yards. He found himself on the outside watching a Tennessee Titans offense that featured rookie wide receivers Treylon Burks and Kyle Philips in the passing game.
The Titans may overlook Hooper’s skills, but Shanahan knows all about it, having coached Hooper during his rookie season. Shanahan was offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons when Hooper had 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, according to Pro Football Reference.
Those stats show a level of comfort with the Shanahan offense that makes a deal for Hopper worthwhile for the 49ers. The only problem is cap space, according to Knox: “The caveat here is that the 49ers only have $4.2 million in cap space. They would either have to make room or convince Tennessee to eat some of the dead money from Hooper’s deal.”
Freeing up disk space is an effort General Manager John Lynch should make. Especially considering how much the Niners missed Kittle.
Kittle’s increasing absence has only served to underscore his value to Shanahan’s team. Adding in the 27-7 win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2, the 49ers’ record is 7-9 without their dynamic tight end.
Not only is his presence as a passcatcher missed, Kittle’s ability to move people as a blocker is crucial to the zone-stretch and read-option-centric running game Shanahan demands. Hooper can also be an asset as a blocker, having spent two seasons with the Cleveland Browns and helping pave the way for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt on the spot.
A good example of 6’4″, 254-pound Hooper’s chops came as a blocker this game 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 that seal edges and hold blocks are important parts of any run-heavy offense, but there’s more value when you’re open in the red zone. It’s something Hooper has consistently managed throughout his career, as he did on that touchdown against the Pats last season, highlighted by Matt Waldman from Football Guys:
There are many arguments as to why Hooper is a good trade target for the 49ers, but perhaps the best part is not just covering an injured kittle. Instead, a two-tight end set featuring a pair of versatile pro bowlers would add another wrinkle to an offense that lost something new when mobile quarterback Trey Lance broke his ankle against the Seahawks.