Kyle Shanahan’s play-action based offensive scheme requires versatility. Ideally, every play could be a run or a pass, a quick screen or four verts — all with the same players. No substitutions that give away the play call.
Pass-catching fullback Kyle Juszczyk is a perfect example, as Shanahan reminded reporters Wednesday at the Combine.
“Kyle is very versatile, so we’ll always use a fullback... it allows us to dictate things to the defense. You can begin in certain personnel groupings that are impossible to run against if you don’t have a fullback. So, if you have a fullback in there, they know you can run it at any time which simplifies a little bit of what the defense is doing. Also, if we can move that fullback to different positions to where he’s not actually playing fullback, then it gives us an advantage.”
It’s not just that the Niners can throw with him on the field, either in pass protection or slipping out for a big gain. It’s that — like star tight end George Kittle — he’s a great blocker as well as a strong receiver, which gives defenses a hard choice about whether to put in a sub-package.
Shanahan has always favored running backs who catch passes as much as they run. As he works with GM John Lynch to boost offensive talent, look for two-way tight ends, wide receivers who can block or run jet sweeps, and maybe even a tackle with TE experience who can be declared pass-eligible.
Here are a few prospects that I could imagine. Since the Niners could trade down into the mid-first round or trade up anywhere, I won’t worry too much about mock draft position.
TE T.J. Hockenson, Iowa
He’s probably going to fall in between the 49ers (currently scheduled) top two picks, but the hard-blocking tight end with good hands would be a perfect complement to Kittle and Juszczyk. The trio would turn the Niners into a dominant run team full of passing game mismatches, with five capable receivers in either 12 or 22 personnel. Combined with one or two deep threats, that squad could isolate any linebackers with coverage liabilities and torture a lot of defensive coordinators. Alabama TE Irv Smith, Jr. would be a second round option.
WR N’Keal Harry, Arizona State
At 6’4”, 225 pounds, Harry is not going to be your go-route burner — his combine goal is to break 4.55 — but he’s great on contested balls and could be a huge asset in the red zone, a conspicuous weak spot in Shanahan’s offense. Basically, he’s kind of a move tight-end with great route running skills who can play outside. There’s no doubt he’ll be able to effectively block defensive backs to help break run plays downfield, either. If he’s not available or disappoints at the Combine, Stanford WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (6’3”, 225 lbs) might be a good alternative.
WR A.J. Brown, Ole Miss
Brown is a different sort of receiver than Harry — only 6’1” but still 225, he has speed to get downfield and the bulk and body control to punish DBs for yards after catch. Former NFL lineman Stephen White compares him to a young Anquan Boldin. He’s not likely to fix the team’s red zone issues, but he’s versatile and has an unusual skill set that Shanahan could exploit.
UPDATE: Brown announced that he’s meeting with the Niners Friday night at the Combine.
There are no real standouts here for pass-catching running backs, and San Francisco has some talent already between Jerick McKinnon, Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, but here are a few who show potential and might be good gambles at a low enough price:
- David Montgomery of Iowa State (1,146 yards rushing this year, 296 receiving)
- Patrick Laird, Cal Bears (961 yards on the ground, 288 yards receiving and 2 passes thrown, both completed! though for a total of zero yards)
- Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M: (1,524 yards and 15 TDs running, 278 and 1 catching)
Who do you see as good multiple prospects for the Niners?