The 49ers’ search for a replacement for injured fullback Bruce Miller includes a familiar face – Will Tukuafu, who spent the past three years with the team. According to a league source, Tukuafu worked out for the team Tuesday, but the 49ers have not yet reached a decision on whether to add him to the roster.
The 6-foot-4, 293-pound Tukuafu primarily is a defensive linemen, but he played 90 snaps for San Francisco at fullback last season, especially in short-yardage situations. He also took some snaps at fullback during the recent preseason.
Tukuafu suffered a knee injury before the start of the season. He signed an injury settlement in September and was released. That settlement, however, expired and the 49ers now are free to re-sign him.
Miller, meanwhile, suffered a broken left scapula when he was hit by Tampa Bay defensive back Keith Tandy following a reception in the fourth quarter on Sunday. The 49ers likely will place him on injured reserve, ending his season, including the playoffs. He is expected to make a full recovery and be ready for training camp.
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The injury is a big blow to a team that has leaned heavily on Miller, not only as a lead blocker for Frank Gore, but as an H-back and pass catcher.
“Very significant,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday of Miller’s role. “He does so many things in the protection and the run game. Receiving out of the backfield. He is a multi-talented, multi-use player. Special teams contributor on two, three phases, so it’s a loss.”
Miller currently ranks third on the 49ers in both receptions and receiving yards. When longtime No. 2 tight end Delanie Walker left for Tennessee via free agency, Miller took on a larger role at the beginning of the season. That workload hasn’t let up, especially with two of the team’s tight ends, Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald, dealing with injuries in recent weeks.
The 49ers used a second-round pick on McDonald in the hope that he could replace Walker as the team’s No. 2 tight end. That process, however, has been slow. McDonald was primarily a pass catcher at Rice University, and because of that his blocking ability has been shoddy this season. McDonald was inactive for Sunday’s game.
With the NFL a pass-dominated league, few teams rely on a fullback anymore. The 49ers are the biggest exception, and Miller has logged more snaps this season than any other fullback in the league. The 49ers, Seahawks and Panthers are the only three teams with more rushing attempts than passing this season. The 49ers’ differential – 452 runs to 362 passes – is greater than that for Seattle and Carolina.
Tukuafu has surprisingly good hands for a man who weighs nearly 300 pounds. But if signed he is unlikely to fill Miller’s role by himself. Instead, look for the 49ers to rotate players at the position with Anthony Dixon and Derek Carrier filling in in various ways.
Dixon filled in at fullback after Miller left Sunday’s game. However, he is a more natural fit at tailback, and even at that position he has had to learn to be more aggressive in the way he hits the line of scrimmage.
Carrier, a college wide receiver, was in the backfield as an H-back for one snap against the Buccaneers, but like McDonald, his blocking ability also must improve. Another in-house option is inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who spent some time learning fullback in the offseason.
The 49ers also have the option of using more three wide receiver sets – in which the fullback is not in the game – than they have in the past. The team’s third wide receiver, Mario Manningham, has one catch for two yards in the past three games.
Manningham played only 14 of 74 offensive snaps last Sunday against the Buccaneers. Miller played 41 snaps, despite leaving the game with seven minutes remaining.