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The NFL’s height bias is an opportunity the 49ers are exploiting

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NFL personnel guys overrate tallness, over and over.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Joe Fann had a really interesting article on Kyle Juszczyk this week, featuring this intriguing quote:

“Rarely does anyone want to be a fullback. You become a fullback by necessity. I was a tight end who was too short. That’s what my agent told me during the pre-draft process.”

Not just a tight end — Juice was a two-time All American at Harvard. But he had no chance to play that position in the NFL, despite 22 receiving touchdowns in college, because he’s 6’ 1”.

Fullbacks are disappearing from the NFL, because GMs don’t want to give a precious roster slot to someone unlikely to touch the ball. The job is being divvied up between running backs (5’9” to 6’2”) and tight ends (6’4 to 6’7”), but blocking is a secondary skill at both positions.

“Move” tight ends — i.e. big guys who can’t block — are increasingly common, and no one expects an RB to lead block on running plays. Running backs are supposed to protect the quarterback in passing situations (third down) while providing a check down receiving option, but again neither skill is their primary job requirement and a lot of them aren’t that good at one or both of them.

Because of his height, Juszczyk is a “tweener,” in between the ideal size for two different positions, and NFL talent scouts hate tweeners. To be fair, a lot of tweeners who were great in college don’t cut it in the pros, because size + speed is a real thing, Sometimes they just get pushed around.

Juszczyk got lucky because Kyle Shanahan, and his mentor Gary Kubiak — the OC at Baltimore when they first started Juice in 2014 — realized that fullback is kind of a tweener position these days, and the Harvard kid fits it perfectly. He’s tough enough to lead block on runs, quick and mobile enough to pass block, and flexible enough to line up at any pass-eligible position. (He’s even the team’s emergency quarterback.)

But most GMs couldn‘t see beyond his (lack of) height. Juice has 255 yards receiving this year, more than WRs Martavis Bryant, Laquon Treadwell or Doug Baldwin, while blocking better than any of them. He has played almost two-thirds of the Niners’ snaps and rivals Marquise Goodwin and Matt Breida for explosion play potential, even as he personally springs Breida for his big runs with key blocks at the second level. But height-bias nearly kept him out of the league altogether.

This is even more of an issue at quarterback, where college prospects 6’2” or less are routinely dismissed (except for the odd Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, or Nick Mullens who sneaks through and establishes himself as an NFL superstar).

Again, these personnel evaluators are not crazy. Height is a real thing for QBs, When I was covering Michael Vick in Philly, there were many situations where he just literally couldn’t see over the various linemen and ran outside the pocket, not because of “happy feet” but just to see who was open.

My theory is that some of the heroic, shorter college quarterbacks — like Johnny Manziel or Vernon Adams, Jr. — catch our eye because their size forces them to take wild chances. When those pay off, it’s impossible not to get excited. But “hanging on for dear life” in college turns into “just getting smothered” in the pros, where everyone is yet bigger, stronger and faster.

But height is not the only thing that makes a QB good. (Just ask Brock Osweiler.) Niners fans are well aware that the abilities to read defenses, find open receivers, throw with a quick motion, and deliver the ball accurately are at least as important as stature.

How many potentially great quarterbacks never get a chance — or are converted to wide receiver, where 6’2” is big — because of rigid conceptions about height, while absolute stiffs like Christian Hackenberg get chance after chance?

If Jimmy Garoppolo was 6’4”, he probably would never have been a backup quarterback and fallen into the 49ers clutches. Some really bad team would have drafted him in the top 10, and he’d be the injury-addled QB for Tampa Bay, or someone like that.

The situation is a shame, but it’s also an opportunity for GMs and coaches able to see past the trite clichés of NFL size requirements. The Niners might have not one, but two great quarterbacks — and an all time great fullback — on their roster right now because Lynch and Shanahan don’t share the league’s blind bias against short players.