Listening to the Better Rivals podcast today I heard an intriguing point being brought up by Oscar, the show's host. He mentioned how the 49ers have had some interesting tendencies in their draft strategy of late, most notably taking two guys who had played in the Air Raid offense of Dana Holgorsen.
Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator for Texas Tech when Michael Crabtree played there, then moved on to Oklahoma State and coached Kendall Hunter, both players the 49ers drafted and have used extensively since Jim Harbaugh arrived. The recent additions of Colin Kaepernick and LaMichael James lead one to ask a valid question:
Are the 49ers building a spread-type offense?
Many scoffed at the notion of LaMichael James with his small stature and limited experience running "between the tackles". After all, the 49ers already had a smaller, quick-footed back in Kendall Hunter. Both played in up-tempo spread offenses in their college career and were very successful, but that wasn't the style of the 49ers when these players were drafted.
Colin Kaepernick surprised many 49ers fans when he was taken in the second round of the 2011 draft after the team passed on much higher-profile (and perhaps "pro-ready") quarterbacks like Christian Ponder and Jake Locker. Kaepernick came from a Pistol offense that mixes elements of option and spread to eat up huge chunks of yards at a time...again, not something the 49ers were known for at the time.
This year has seen elements of both the option and some spread offense added to the playbook. Running backs and tight ends are routinely "flexed" out of the formation and split out wide. We've even seen as many as three guys lined up with Kaepernick in the "Q" formation (James calls it the "bug-eye"), a variation of the Pistol known as "full house". Sometimes the players remain in the backfield, other times some or all of them motion wide.
Even guys like Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins embody the "quick and shifty" type of receivers that would seem to thrive in a spread offense. Perhaps the 49ers apparent aversion toward drafting a big-bodied "deep threat" wide receiver is by design? Maybe they're building the pieces of a spread-style offense year-by-year?
You could even speculate that perhaps that's another big reason why Colin Kaepernick is now the starting QB for the team, in place of Alex Smith who had grown accustomed to playing under center and handing the ball off on inside runs. Smith is certainly athletic, but he's no gazelle like Kaepernick and is far removed from his days in the spread offense.
Brandon Jacobs was brought in to be a big physical running back in 2012 yet was hardly even dressed on game-day and even when he was active, was rarely ever on the field. Perhaps the 49ers had moved far enough away from the offense in which Jacobs would thrive and he was no longer valuable to them. He certainly wasn't happy with this and also wasn't shy about expressing his feelings on the matter, hence his suspension and eventual release.
Whatever the case, this upcoming draft may give us even more clues as to Jim Harbaugh's plans for the 49ers offense.