By: Zach Hernandez (@Zachhernan)
The 49ers extended both Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek as Trent Baalke was being pushed out the door. Per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, McDonald’s contract extension was a five-year deal worth $35 million in total, with $16 million guaranteed. ESPN’s Adam Caplan, the Celek was worth a total of $14 million, with only $4.5 million of that guaranteed. Both extensions were seen as head-scratching moves by the fan base. McDonald has become notorious for drops and turnovers in key times in games. Also, Celek so far has never been more than a backup, or a lower-level starter at best for the 49ers.
With that being said, McDonald still ranked third on the team last season in catches (24) and receiving yards (391). Vance was also able to break off long touchdown catches of both 65 and 75 yards. While those numbers may look okay on an extremely bad team, they still don’t live up to the expectations of a former second-round pick. It is almost like extending McDonald was a parting shot by Baalke on his way out.
In the months leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, I was pounding the table for Hikutini as much as anyone. With measurables of 6’4″, 247 lbs., 32 & 3/4″ wingspan, and 10″ hands, he has all of the tools at his disposal to become the next great tight end for the 49ers. Cole was not only Heisman Trophy-winner Lamar Jackson’s favorite target, but also his security blanket. Hikutini was a second-team All-ACC pick in 2016 and also finished the season with a team-leading 50 receptions, 8 touchdowns, and second in receiving yards with 668.
The 49ers drafted tight end George Kittle from Iowa in the fourth-round this year, and added Hikutini as an UDFA shortly after the draft concluded. Not long after, rumors of incumbent starter Vance McDonald being on the trade block started to float around. If you ask me, the writing is on the wall for Vance and it is not a love story.
Let’s go over the strengths and weaknesses of the former Louisville pass-catcher and also why I want him to make the team so badly.
- Above average size at the position, could prove to be a mismatch nightmare.
- More often than not, Cole is winning the jump balls thrown his way.
- Great at running underneath the ball while it is in the air and is above average at tracking it with his hands once it makes contact.
- Often proves to be too fast for a linebacker, but too big for a safety or cornerback.
- Typically excels at yards after the catch.
- Finds the open areas in zone coverage and sits right in.
- Below average at run-blocking.
- Needs to work on his physicality in order to compete with bigger, stronger, and faster guys in the NFL.
- Only one year of high production value.
- Could use work on his route-running.
- Not superb at catching in tight coverage.
While I know Hikutini is far from the best run-blocker, he still has shown a great ability to become a reliable target. He needs to contribute heavily on special teams at first to earn his spot on the final 53-man roster. The new regime is not committed to Vance McDonald or Garrett Celek at all, so if they were to move on from either one or even both, Hikutini could be in for a bigger role this season.
He has been one of my favorite prospects since before the draft and I’m ecstatic he was able to land with the 49ers. Watching him keep the Louisville offense moving time after time was a major selling point for me. However, Hikutini will need at least a season or two to develop into a well-rounded tight end. If he can improve majorly on his ability to run-block and catch in contested coverage, look for him to develop into a threat for the 49ers alongside fellow rookie tight end George Kittle.
Stay tuned for more 49ers UDFA’s we’re stoked to see hit the field! & Be sure to follow us on Twitter!