San Francisco 49ers: Pierre Garcon, Garrett Celek key to red zone fortunes

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images /

Pierre Garcon and Garrett Celek had contrasting fortunes in the red zone in 2016, but both will be key inside the 20 for the San Francisco 49ers in 2017.

For San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, first-year success will be measured in performances rather than wins. At the same time, the onus will be on the highly regarded play-caller to turn around an offense that ranked among the worst in the NFL in 2016. There are a number of statistics that illustrate just how bad the 49ers were on offense last year.

But one of the most damning is the Football Outsiders’ metric Drive Success Rate, in which San Francisco ranked No. 31 in the league. In order for the Niners’ offensive numbers to improve, success in the red zone is imperative, but their top free-agent acquisition, wide receiver Pierre Garcon, does not have great statistics inside the 20-yard line.

As Rotoworld’s Raymond Summerlin points out, Garcon caught just one of his 13 targets inside the 20 for a touchdown, and failed to score on six passes thrown his way inside the 10 in 2016.

However, Pre Snap Reads’ Cian Fahey recently stated his belief that Garcon is not a bad red zone receiver, with his struggles instead being due to Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins’ failings as a passer.

Cousins’ numbers in the red zone last year were dreadful. Per Pro Football Reference, he completed just 45.78 percent of his throws from inside the 20-yard line and 31.58 percent from inside the 10. However, in 2015, the last time Cousins and Hoyer played something close to comparable game time, it was the Redskins signal-caller who had the better numbers.

The kind of rapport Hoyer and Garcon build in the red zone will therefore go a long way to settling the debate as to who was at fault for the wideout’s red-zone struggles. Yet, even if Garcon is again unable to find success inside the 20, the Niners may have a saving grace.

Though none of the receivers behind Garcon on the depth chart are physically dominant players who can bully defenders in the red zone, tight end Garrett Celek has flourished in that area of the field. Last season Celek, per Summerlin, caught three of his five targets from inside the 20 for scores and both of his passes from inside the 10 for touchdowns. Shanahan is a noted fan of Celek, per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, but — while he is a good in-line blocker — he struggled with drops in 2016.

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His playing time may also come under threat from rookie George Kittle, who had 10 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Iowa and impressed in offseason activities. Kittle was a significant red zone threat for the Hawkeyes and, even if Celek struggles, the fifth-round pick should have an opportunity to fill the void.

Garcon figures to be the main focal point of the passing game and, regardless of who was to blame for his poor red zone numbers in Washington, Shanahan and the 49ers will naturally be keen for his fortunes down inside the 20 to change. But should he continue to struggle in the redzone, the Niners do at least have a couple of targets in Celek and Kittle who can cause defenses issues in that area of the field.

Throw in two multi-faceted backfield options in Carlos Hyde and Kyle Juszczyk and it is clear Hoyer has plenty of help to assist him in finishing off drives. San Francisco has a lot more depth on the offensive side of the ball and, with Shanahan calling the plays, that should translate to more success in every area of the field, including the red zone.

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Garcon and Celek seem likely to be the leading candidates to be the primary difference-maker inside the 20. The former has plenty to prove in that area of the field while Celek has to prove he belongs with a lot of competition at tight end, both have plenty of motivation to succeed and — if the 49ers’ Drive Success Rate is to improve — it is pivotal that they do.