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How will the 49ers use Kyle Juszczyk?

Do the math: versatile FB + inventive coach = FUN

Many NFL pundits criticized the San Francisco 49ers for paying free agent Pro Bowl fullback Kyle Juszczyk $5 million a year, a record for the position. However, his potential as an all-around “offensive weapon” makes the criticism short-sighted.

For one thing, the Niners still have $74 million left in cap room even after all of their free agency signings, the most in the NFL. Additionally, the contract is effectively year to year, so there’s no long-term risk. And overpaying a player at a low-paid position like fullback or kicker still doesn’t cost that much, compared to quarterback or wide receiver.

Consider wide receiver Torrey Smith, by all accounts a great human being. He made $8 million per year for San Francisco before he was released. In 2016, he hauled in 267 yards receiving — only one more than Juszczyk got as a fullback in Baltimore. It’s not like Juszczyk lacked for competition, either — three Ravens including tight end Dennis Pitta had more receiving yards than anyone in San Francisco last year.

K-Juice got those yards on 37 receptions (in 49 targets) and added 12 first downs, which is pretty good given that he was mostly a check down option. He ran only five times for 22 yards, but picked up three first downs and a touchdown on those five plays, so you know they were tough short-yardage situations where the box was stacked.

He’s been impressive in big games as well. Check out this gritty 10-yard touchdown run to take the lead against hated rival Pittsburgh with 1:18 left in the 4th quarter of their Week 16 showdown last year Flacco elitely went to the fullback on three of the last four plays in that crucial scoring drive for gains of 5, 6, and 10 yards. Juszczyk also had five receptions (on five targets) for 43 yards in the Pro Bowl this year, and he showed up during his one year in the playoffs, 2014, with nearly identical numbers (45 yards on six catches).

The biggest flaw I could find was a serious case of fumble-itis during his first active season, 2014, when he put three of his 25 receptions on the ground (including one in the playoffs). He hasn't fumbled in the last two years, though, on 88 touches.

Beyond the stats, Juszczyk's intangibles are off the charts. He's never missed a game in four NFL seasons. There’s more: high school quarterback, just 25 years old, Harvard grad, and captain of the football team there. His high school coach (Dave Ward) gave him a wristband that says "Pursue victory with honor" and he still wears it -- every day.

What does he want to do with his lucrative Harvard economics degree, after his NFL career ends? “I’d like to coach high school football someday,” he told the Ravens official website. “That’s the level you can make the greatest impact – personally – on the kids. Much like Dave did for me, I could see myself doing that for younger kids.”

Oh, stop! I bet his hobbies are cleaning up Superfund sites in underprivileged neighborhoods and rescuing puppies from burning buildings. Also, he's cute. And a fan favorite.

In Atlanta, the stadium echoed with "JUUUIIIIICCCEEEEE!!!" every time he made a play. The 49ers' more elegant fans will probably yell "AU, JUS!"

Not surprisingly, the Ivy League grad adds an analytical outlook to his smash mouth style. Check out how he approaches tape study when preparing to block the inside linebackers and safeties he mostly faces.

“A linebacker’s particular style will change my approach,” he said. “Downhill guys, I might try to slow them and cut them a couple times, or maybe I need to cheat up in my stance so I can hit them on their side of the line of scrimmage. Whereas, guys who try to make me miss, I need to have more control. I can’t just put my shoulder in them; I have to use my hands and great technique.”

He's already bringing that studious approach to his new team, as he made clear in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “I was told I need to know Tom Rathman. I looked him up, watched some old videos and looked at the numbers, and that seems like my kind of guy. I think I saw one season he had almost 700 (actually 616) yards receiving. I would love to live up to a legacy like that as a Niner and be remembered like he is.”

That's slightly awkward, since Kyle Shanahan just replaced Rathman as the team's running backs coach with Bobby Turner, the Shanahan family's official RB coach, but he's not wrong about the comparison.

So, how might Kyle Shanahan use Juszczyk to justify his fancy salary? Let’s compare how the coach used his fullback Patrick DiMarco in Atlanta the last two years.

While both are among the NFL’s best and most frequently used fullbacks, they have very different styles. Pro Football Focus’ ratings can be subjective, but they’re very clear on one point: DiMarco is mostly a run blocker, while Juszczyk is good in every facet and best in pass protection.

PFF stats show that Shanahan used DiMarco for run blocking on 57 percent of his 377 snaps, vs. less than 10 percent for pass blocking. That’s probably because he was great at run blocking — the league’s best, in PFF’s scoring system — but pretty bad at pass pro, rated dead last among the 38 NFL fullbacks. He had only 10 receiving targets despite having the second most fullback snaps in the league, catching seven of them for 52 yards.

Then again, Shanahan didn’t need another pass target. The Falcons’ league-leading pass offense already had Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel, two running backs who each had over 400 yards receiving, and three tight ends who featured prominently in his offense.

Talent-deprived San Francisco will be a very different story, and Shanahan will have lots of opportunity to use Juszczyk’s versatile talents. He’s an ideal play-action fullback — a very good run blocker, so that possibility can’t be ignored, a superb pass blocker, and an excellent pass target if he leaks out.

Jus lined up all over the field last year — in the slot, at halfback, split wide or as a traditional fullback. That will allow the Niners to change their formation dramatically without substitutions, possibly in a tempo burst that prevents the defense from putting in a sub-package.

Imagine a big 3rd-down gain that gets inside the ten yard line. Juszczyk could switch instantly from a pass protector to a road grader or sledgehammer runner, allowing the team to quickly punch it in. Or Shanny could run a play action with Juszczyk and Carlos Hyde leaking out, on top of the other WRs and TE, for five receiving targets against a flat-footed and winded defense.

The best predictor of how he might be used is probably Shanahan’s use of tight ends, including a lot of 13 personnel formations (with one back and three tight ends). In an article earlier this year, I described an outside zone bootleg play action Shanahan likes. (Matt Bowen calls it the “TE Throwback.)

The third TE lines up tight right, executes the run fake, then blocks across the formation left for a few seconds before heading out on a wheel route. Juszczyk could easily do the same after faking his run block, or lined up in the slot.

Just as often, though, Juszczyk picked up surprising yards after the catch on plays that weren’t tricky at all — just simple check-downs, as in his 40 yard play against the New England Patriots in Week 14. The fullback caught it at the line of scrimmage and evaded or broke 5 tackles before he was finally brought down.

Last year, Kyle Shanahan didn’t have (or need) a great pass-catching fullback, and Kyle Juszczyk didn’t have a shrewd offensive mind designing plays for him. I’m excited about what they can do together in 2017.