State of the 49ers, WR/TE: An explosive pass offense continues its surge (2024)

State of the 49ers, WR/TE: An explosive pass offense continues its surge (1)

By Matt Barrows and David Lombardi

Jul 2, 2024

There was remarkable balance and efficiency in the San Francisco 49ers’ passing game in 2023.

Though they attempted fewer passes (491) than any team in the league during the regular season, the 49ers finished fourth in passing yards (4,384) and two of their pass catchers — Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle — finished with more than 1,000 receiving yards. A third, Deebo Samuel Sr., came 108 yards from the 1,000-yard club.

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Aiyuk, Kittle and Samuel also were the team’s leading receivers for five games each in 2023. The only others to achieve that were running back Christian McCaffrey, who had 72 receiving yards in a Week 15 romp over the Arizona Cardinals, and Chris Conley, who was the top receiver in a Week 18 finale that didn’t feature many starters.

49ers’ 2023 weekly rec'ing yards leader:
1 Aiyuk 129
2 Samuel 63
3 Samuel 129
4 Aiyuk 148
5 Kittle 67
6 Aiyuk 76
7 Kittle 78
8 Kittle 149
10 Kittle 116
11 Aiyuk 156
12 Sam 79
13 Sam 116
14 Sam 149
15 McCaf 72
16 Kit 126
17 Aiy 114
18 Conley 69
Tally: BA 5, GK 5, DS 5, CM 1, CC 1

— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) June 30, 2024

Despite that balance, one receiver stood out.

The regular season began with Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson insisting he knew the 49ers’ offensive “tells” and claiming he’d come away with an interception. Instead, Aiyuk caught two touchdowns against Peterson, causing Peterson to fall down on one of them, and finished with 129 yards.

Aiyuk finished the regular season with a team-best 1,342 receiving yards. He also had the most iconic catch of the 49ers’ season, one in which he lunged to snag a deflected pass at the Detroit Lions 4-yard line in the third quarter of the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers were trailing by two touchdowns at the time. The catch and ensuing touchdown — a 6-yard throw to Aiyuk — sparked San Francisco’s second-half comeback.

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Aiyuk also was set up for a momentous catch during the overtime period of the Super Bowl. On third down from the Kansas City Chiefs’ 9-yard line, he shook cornerback L’Jarius Sneed so badly Sneed slipped to the ground, calling to mind Aiyuk’s game against the Steelers in Week 1.

This time, however, there was a breakdown in the 49ers’ pass protection, Brock Purdy didn’t see Aiyuk wide open in the end zone and had to rush a completion. The 49ers settled for a field goal at a point when they badly needed a touchdown. — Matt Barrows

State of the 49ers, WR/TE: An explosive pass offense continues its surge (3)

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By the numbers

YPRR, or yards per route run, is Pro Football Focus’ measure of receiving efficiency within the context of any given target’s offense. Because catch and yardage totals don’t account for how many times a receiver is deployed on pass patterns, YPRR is a gauge of how efficiently a target is integrated into the offense — or how heavily he’s used.

2023 49ers receiving efficiency

TargetRecYdsYPRRDrop rate

Brandon Aiyuk

75

1,342

2.65

2.3%

Christian McCaffrey

67

564

1.36

1.1%

George Kittle

65

1,020

1.99

8.8%

Deebo Samuel

60

892

2.26

5.2%

Jauan Jennings

19

265

1.24

3.3%

Kyle Juszczyk

14

119

0.71

Ray-Ray McCloud

12

135

1.13

Ronnie Bell

6

68

0.87

14.3%

Elijah Mitchell

6

14

0.26

14.3%

Chris Conley

3

69

1.44

16.7%

Jordan Mason

3

31

0.89

Charlie Woerner

3

32

0.31

Willie Snead IV

2

14

0.58

Ross Dwelley

1

12

0.57

Each player’s color shading (blue denotes above average and red denotes below average) is set relative to players at their respective position groups: receiver, tight end, running back and fullback.

Whereas the 2022 49ers were essentially even among Aiyuk, Samuel, Kittle and McCaffrey atop the YPRR list, 2023 saw an uptick for the wideouts. The same four players were still the 49ers’ most productive targets, but Aiyuk and Samuel surged over 2 YPRR. Kittle’s efficiency also increased, from 1.82 to 1.99 YPRR, while McCaffrey’s decreased from 1.67 to 1.36 YPRR.

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These shifts showcased the 49ers’ evolution into a more aggressive pass offense, one that ratcheted up emphasis on big shots downfield to its wideouts. Purdy, who’d averaged only 6.6 air yards per attempt in 2022 (this ranked No. 29 of qualifying QBs), upped that number to 8.1 air yards per attempt in 2023. That ranked No. 9.

Meanwhile, no NFL tight end was used more in the deep game than Kittle. He made seven catches for 232 yards and three touchdowns, all league highs, on throws traveling 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage.

This from @FieldVisionMi underscores the importance of Brandon Aiyuk within the 49ers' loaded offense… It's also worth noting that George Kittle led all NFL tight ends generating 0.72 EPA/play when targeted: pic.twitter.com/8XZy2MhLcS

— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) June 30, 2024

Purdy enjoyed the lowest drop cumulative drop rate, 4.1 percent, of any qualifying NFL quarterback. The 49ers’ receivers dropped only 16 passes all season, according to Pro Football Focus. All of their primary targets registered drop rates under 10 percent.

Credit for this goes two ways. Purdy throws a very accurate, timely and catchable ball and he has a talented cadre of targets. This was high-level, explosive football that the 49ers would like to sustain. — David Lombardi

Offseason plan

The 49ers have struggled to develop a wide receiver since Aiyuk was drafted in 2020.

Danny Gray, a third-round pick in 2022, didn’t play a snap last season after finishing with just one catch as a rookie. Ronnie Bell, a seventh-round selection last year, got off to a nice start in 2023 before trailing off in the second half of the season. He was inactive for all three playoff games.

That’s partially why the 49ers used their first-round pick on Ricky Pearsall. Like Aiyuk, his top skill is making precise, razor-sharp cuts that create separation and that should make him a favorite target for Purdy. Because Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings missed chunks of the spring session, Pearsall got plenty of practice repetitions and was able to start developing timing with Purdy.

State of the 49ers, WR/TE: An explosive pass offense continues its surge (19)

The 49ers hope Ricky Pearsall snaps their recent string of struggles from young, drafted wide receivers. (Robert Kupbens / USA Today)

The 49ers drafted another receiver in the fourth round, Jacob Cowing. He’s being eyed for the role Ray-Ray McCloud had the last two seasons, as a punt returner who serves as the backup for Samuel. Cowing is a little bigger and is certainly faster than McCloud, which ought to make him a weapon on screens and end arounds.

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At tight end, the 49ers made a play for restricted free agent Brock Wright only to see the Lions match their offer. They also may have been interested in Ohio State’s Cade Stover, whom the Houston Texans drafted one spot ahead of San Francisco in the fourth round.

The 49ers made a late signing at the position by landing 33-year-old Logan Thomas. He, blocking tight end Eric Saubert, 2023 draft picks Cameron Latu and Brayden Willis, and Jake Tonges round out the position behind Kittle. — Barrows

2024 outlook

Last season’s playoffs offered a fascinating split that illustrates the 49ers’ vision in adding Pearsall to an already talented group.

The 49ers called 109 pass plays and only 77 run plays (non-designed Purdy scrambles are counted as called pass plays) over those three games, a drastic departure from their run-forward ratio of the past. And no, the 17-point deficit the 49ers faced against Detroit in the NFC title game didn’t overly factor into the heavy passing skew. During the third quarter that saw the 49ers erase that entire deficit, they called 11 pass plays and nine running plays. So the majority of the 49ers’ heavy pass tendencies in the playoffs came in close games and not during big comeback efforts.

Given coach Kyle Shanahan’s trust in Purdy, the investment in the receiving room makes a lot of sense. Pearsall and Cowing are aboard to make the offense even more capable against man coverage. The 49ers are striving to strike a long-term deal with Aiyuk that ensures Purdy keeps his top weapon beyond this season.

For 2024, the 49ers appear to be stocked with even more talent here than they fielded during their explosive 2023 campaign. — Lombardi

(Top photo of Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

State of the 49ers, WR/TE: An explosive pass offense continues its surge (2024)

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