The 49ers entered training camp with a logjam at tight end. Holdovers Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Blake Bell were due to compete with fifth-round pick George Kittle, veteran Logan Paulsen and undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini.
After three exhibition games and the trade of McDonald to the Steelers Tuesday, the picture at tight end is much more clear.
Kittle, from Iowa, is now No. 1 on the depth chart and figures to be a big part of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s new offensive scheme. Paulsen and Celek are likely to make the roster, too, with Bell and Hikutini on the bubble.
After taking Kittle in the draft, 49ers general manager John Lynch was high on the potential of the former Hawkeyes standout.
“He’s got some suddenness to him in his movements,” Lynch said in June. “He catches the ball extremely well. So I think George gives us something we don’t have, and a playmaker in the red zone, where you got a one-on-one matchup. We’re confident we’re going to move the ball because Kyle knows how to put together an offense and we’ve got a guy who fits into what he wants to do.”
Kittle, 6-foot-4 and 247 pounds, split first-team reps in the spring and consistently made plays. Once exhibition games began, Kittle lived up to his billing. He’s had three catches for 33 yards, including one for a 29-yard touchdown play.
“I try to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way, and I did that early in OTAs, so they kept feeding me more and more,” Kittle told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group Tuesday. “Now we’re here so I have an opportunity to play a little more.”
As Inman noted, too, the 49ers figure to use fullback Kyle Juszczyk in pass-catching routes from the tight end position and backfield to augment what the tight ends are able to do.
Juszczyk says it’s obvious why the 49ers are eager to make use of Kittle.
“George is a great route runner and he’s very physical,” he said. “I can understand why they have a lot of confidence in him, and I think he’s going to do really well.”
The 49ers play their final exhibition game Thursday against the Chargers at 7 p.m. at Levi’s Stadium.