The sneaky brilliance of Garrett Celek

Good news: Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t the only wonderful thing about the 49er’s offense.

For those of us who appreciate some of the nuances of the game, we have Garrett Celek.

Formerly an undrafted free agent, Celek has developed from an intriguing piece, to downright good, excelling in Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Celek was part of the team’s tight end rotation a year ago and figures to get more chances as this squad morphs into Jimmy G’s full-time.

Football snobs will admire his most essential role: as a run-blocker. He’s brilliant blocking on the move.

Split-blocking actions are a foundational part of any modern run-game — crashing the offensive line one way and dragging a tight end across the formation to cover the other. Shanahan’s system is no different.

Celek plays with physicality, grit and guile, making him the perfect move blocker. He plays light on his feet for a big man and has fluid hips, allowing him to get in good positions before flipping his opponent one way or the other. He doesn’t quite run people off-the-ball with the classic battering-ram approach, but he has enough push in his giant mitts to shepherd defenders wherever he needs to.

None of this is rocket science: Celek just know where he needs to be in relation to his defender to create good angles for his teammates. Watch below, as he sprints to get out on a jetsweep, which the frontside of Niners’ offensive line blocks as if an outside-zone run (#88):

Celek had to spring out of his stance to get to his guy. He didn’t quite get across the face of his target initially. But he kept working. Once he latched on, he “fit” perfectly: clamping his hands on the defender’s breastplate. From there, he was able to contort the defender however he saw fit. He kept his feet light, and twisted the Titan back inside, gifting an alley for Marquise Goodwin to swoop around the outside.

Few tight ends in the league are better at sealing the frontside as a run blocker. It’s not always the prettiest, but it’s effective.

Garoppolo trusts him as a pass-catcher, too. That’s obvious.

Celek wasn’t the most targeted tight end on the team, though. That honor went to George Kittle. Kittle was targeted 63 times in 2017; Celek just 31, by comparison.

And the game-to-game numbers are even more striking: Celek had two targets per game, max, prior to week 9 of the season. Once the starting gig was Garoppolo’s, Celek had at least four targets in four of the next five weeks.

Still: it’s the tape (MP4 file, really. But it doesn’t quite have the same ring.) that tells the all-important story. Garoppolo flashed his eyes to Celek in third-and-medium situations constantly. When decisive plays were needed, Garoppolo’s instinct was to look for his big man.

The two have a nice wink-wink chemistry on in-breaking routes:

Celek has the size and just enough wiggle to be a tough match-up for any safetey who slides down to cover him, or slot guys who’re given the task after some form of shift or motion.

Nevertheless, the throw above only gets made because of Garoppolo. The clarity and speed with which he makes decisions is special; the whip-like throwing motion is Romo-esque. It’s the timing of those passes, flicked a beat earlier than defenses are used to, that makes it all deadly. The ball gets onto a DB before they’re ready. Pair that with supreme accuracy, and you’re in trouble, no matter the quality of coverage.

Positioning trumps separation. Celek wasn’t open, open but he gave Garoppolo a decent enough path to hit him in stride. Garoppolo, of course, tossed it to a spot only Celek could reach, because why the hell not?

(Quick aside: I know he’s received a ton of press, but I still don’t think we’ve recognized quite how special Garoppolo is.)

Celek is a smart route-runner who excepts his limitations. He has good size, good speed and decent hops; he’s by no means a freak in the sporting sense of the word. Perhaps more importantly, he has a great football brain.

That’s important against man-coverage, particularly for tight ends who are bombarded with a series of option routes. Those are, however, traditionally easy equations — You go here, I’ll go there — like Jason Witten’s infamous Y-Stick, which he presumably we still be running effectively from beyond the grave.

Against zone-coverage things are a tad trickier. There’s more options. It’s easy to say find space and go sit in it. After all, that’s essentially the aim of the game. But that doesn’t account for late rotations, bluffs, or any number of zone blitzes. Perhaps that’s the spot on the field the defense wants me to sit in?

The best tight ends just have an intuition for this stuff. Celek has it.

Below: As the Texans got themselves in all kinds of trouble trying to line-up correctly (a maddeningly consistent theme of that 2017 outfit), Celek attacked the vacated space, arcing his route more than coaches would traditionally like — sharp, defined movements, that’s usually the demand. But it was effective. He pressed his foot and exploded into the open space.

Sit back and watch the big fella rumble downfield after the catch:

It’s worth noting that Garoppolo’s eyes never moved off either safety. He knew it was a split safety look; he knew the Texans had issues lining up; he knew Celek had a vertical route that would cut through the confusion and coverage hole. Celek held up his end of the bargain.

This blossoming relationship is vital to Shanahan’s offense moving forward. Multi tight-end sets — and tight ends with diverse skillsets — are crucial to Shanahan’s dynamic system.

Celek has formed a nice two-man game with Kittle. Neither clogs the other’s natural habitat; they complement one another, each offer something a bit different: Kittle the more trusted receiver; Celek the better blocker on the move. Both have size and speed. When you chuck in Kyle Juszczyk you get a pretty tasty “13” personnel grouping, one of Shanahan’s favorites back in his Atlanta days.

(Charting data suggests Shanahan barely used “13” personnel in his lone year in San Fran. Part of that is evolution — more crack-back and receiver blocks — part is the data: how the three are charted, given they each line-up in the backfield and in traditional tight end spots. Often Juszczyk is charted exclusively as a fullback, hence an uptick in “21” personnel groupings.)

All three players can move anywhere and everywhere. The Niners made Juszczyk the highest paid “fullback” a year ago. In reality, he’s better to suited to the moniker “offensive weapon” than any of the satellite backs/receivers that have come through the league and received such a lofty designation (sarcasm intended): Percy Harvin, Tavon Austin et al.

Shanahan’s unit led the league in 21 personnel (two back, one tight end) last year, per Sharp Football, moving all three to different spots on the field. Any of the big-guys-who-block-but-can-also-catch-passes could line-up as a traditional tight end in-line; offset; in the backfield; or flexed out as a receiver. That’s a poisonous cocktail for any defense to deal with.

From any formation, the 49ers could run or pass effectively. And if they didn’t like their initial look, they could shift or motion to a more advantageous one (multi-positional, flexible players are such a valuable weapon).

It also opened up The Shanahan’s sweet-heart: the boot-action. Kyle’s father, Mike, helped pioneer the outside-zone/stretch boot-action run-game. Baby Shanahan may love it just as much.

To run a competent boot-action system, you must commit wholeheartedly. Players must run off the ball and believe they’re going to run the ball, before the quarterback pulls it out and sneaks out the backdoor looking to throw. The run game itself doesn’t need to be strong — it helps, of course. But that’s a misnomer. You just need a defense to believe you’re going to run the ball, and to commit bodies to stop it.

The 2017 Niners ran as funky and sophisticated boot-action scheme as anyone in the league:

They found new wrinkles every week.

Garoppolo’s mobility helped. The offensive line committing made the thing work. That tight-end/fullback trio really made the thing sing.

Teams feared the 49ers outside-zone running game because each of the three tight ends were competent-to-good-to-excellent run-blockers. And San Fran punished those fears because whenever Garoppolo pulled the thing, he could chuck it to anyone of those guys, all equally as effective as any receiver.

Celek remained the most effective and important of the three. He finished 6th in DVOA among tight ends in 2017, Football Outsider’s efficiency metric — which counts pass-catching value, not run-blocking. Kittle finished 17th (Juszczyk was not listed). Plus, Celek finished 8th in DYAR — Football Outsider’s total value metric — nine spots ahead of his teammate.

Celek wasn’t targeted as much as Kittle; he didn’t even see as much of the field as the rookie, though the difference was nominal — Celek played 51% of the team’s snaps, compared to Kittle’s 53%, and Juszczyk’s 31%. But the veteran was more of a sure-thing — dropping one ball all season, while Kittle dropped seven, per Football Outsiders. And Celek averaged two yards per target more than Kittle — Celek: 10.1 yards per target; Kittle: 8.1 YPT; Juszczyk: 7.5 YPT.

Kittle was a rookie; he should get better. But he’s not coming to usurp Celek’s role in the offense. They serve two equally necessary functions. They don’t quite need each other, but they sure damn help each other out.

One extra tidbit: It sounds cliché, but I love the way Celek competes. Nothing sums it up better than this:

He slips on his route. The ball was picked. He was open; he knew it. He got pissed. He chased down the interceptor, sprinting with a fury that bordered on reckless. He dragged the guy down, committing a not insignificant horse collar penalty. It was equal parts zealous and stupid and marvellous, with a hint of danger lobbed in for effect. But I kind of, sort of loved it. It probably gave Jon a Grudengasm.

The dude can play on my team.

In a short space of time, Celek has gone from being the lesser player in his own family — his brother Brett has been a decade-long mainstay for the Eagles — to one of the ten-best at his position in the league. Somehow, he’s still doing it all under-the-radar.

Note: Until I find a new full-time landing spot (R.I.P Cox Media), I’m going to write any football stuff (vacillating between the NFL and college) back at The Read Optional, while working on some longer-term projects. To send in questions — Twitter: @OllieConnolly; Email: Connolly@thereadoptional.com

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.