The San Francisco 49ers are drastically overhauling their roster this year, and what we’ve seen so far suggestions a radically different philosophy behind all their moves.
Trent Baalke and Chip Kelly shared a strong preference for long, tall, athletic players, especially at wide receiver and cornerback. Kelly also preferred interchangeable players in the backfield for better deception, for example mirrored safeties rather than a sharp strong safety vs. fee safety distinction. And he added a few more requirements: college graduation, good character, skill at and desire for blocking (for wide receivers).
The problem with that is that everyone wants big, athletic, smart, high character players, but there aren’t enough to go around. You have to give something up to get those guys, and what you usually give up is talent, health, or production. That’s why they both acquired so many underachievers, ACL-injured players, and WRs/TEs with stone hands. You can’t have it all.
In contrast, Kyle Shanahan has devised a scheme that can make the most of players with more common, more limited skillsets: unheralded running backs, short and quick receivers, tight ends who don’t receive much (or don’t block so well). Rookie GM John Lynch is implementing Shanny’s vision and hopefully using his experience as an NFL star to sniff out players with that X-factor that separates good pros from college stars who never make it.
Take the tight end position, for example. Last year the Falcons played five, led by 31-year old journeyman Jacob Tamme (who the team let walk). All five caught touchdowns, even “awful” blocker Joshua Perkins, and D.J. Tialavea who was on the practice squad until Week 16.
Tialavea and Levine Toilolo are mostly blockers, yet Shanahan found a way to squeeze 264 yards out of Toilolo on 19 receptions. To be fair though, having Matt Ryan under center and arguably the league’s most talented WR corps to distract defenders was a big part of that.
The Falcon’s tight end group was deep but not especially talented, outside of 2016 rookie Austin Hooper (a late third round draft pick). Shanahan found clever ways to use them to not only catch and block, but also misdirect defenses and free up RBs and WRs.
Shanahan has also done well getting production out of un-hyped running backs, such as Alfred Morris (6th round pick) and Devonta Freeman (4th). That may be more about his RB coach Bobby Turner’s skill, as Peter King has written, but Shanahan brought Turner to San Francisco so the distinction doesn’t really matter.
With wide receivers, Shanahan has done great with small, quick receivers that Chip Kelly would never have considered, such as last year’s breakout star Taylor Gabriel. (Baalke did select one, 4th rounder Bruce Ellington, who hasn’t been able to stay on the field due to injuries.)
He’s implementing his vision already, adding smaller WRs Aldrick Robinson, Trent Taylor, and Marquise Goodwin, and three TEs of varying skills (move TE Cole Hikutini and ace blockers George Kittle and Logan Paulsen, as well as FB Kyle Juszczyk who has a similar skill set).
As I discussed in an earlier article, Tampa Bay reporter Matt Baker gave us some insight into Shanahan and Lynch’s marriage of scheme and personnel approach in his story about the pitch they made to UDFA RB Matt Breida.
They told Breida about the two-back system the coaching staff previously used in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Even though they drafted Utah's Joe Williams in the fourth round, he's a bigger back. They needed a speedy one. They needed Breida. If another team offered a better signing bonus, they'd match it.
That’s the shrewdness of Shanahan’s approach. From his many years of experience dating back to his college days, he knows you can’t always get ideal big, fast, smart, talented players in the NFL, and he knows what kind of players you can reliably get, year after year.
His genius is that he has crafted a scheme that works with exactly those kinds of players.