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Slot size matters

Or does it? Trent Taylor might disagree

Divisional Round - Philadelphia Eagles v New Orleans Saints Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The best bargains in NFL free agency come a few days into it, after the bidding wars have soaked up big chunks of cap space and the remaining players aren’t even sure they’ll get a contract.

San Francisco signed 6’3”, 215 lb, 26-year-old slot receiver Jordan Matthews after the big names were done. His contract details have not been announced, but the Eagles only paid him $700,000 last year so it’s unlikely he topped a million.

That is solid value for a proven veteran with a great attitude and work ethic, who appears to be healed up from the injuries that derailed his career after three strong years in Philly (averaging 891 yards a season). Also, his mom is Jerry Rice’s cousin, and he hung out with him as a kid. What do you want?

I was impressed by Matthews’ college career, where he was the only scoring threat for Vanderbilt, the SEC’s weakest team. As a result, he faced double teams every week against the nation’s best secondaries. How did he respond? By finishing as the all-time SEC receiving leader in receptions (262) and yards (3,759).

Last year, the Eagles signed him off the street in Week 3. (He was in the Patriots’ camp, always a good sign, until they released him in early August after a hamstring injury.)

The Eagles didn’t call his number often (28 targets) but when they did, he delivered: 20 receptions, 15 yards per catch, 14 first downs and two touchdowns — plus one more TD (a 37-yarder) in the divisional round of the playoffs against New Orleans.

He’s a great chess piece for Kyle Shanahan, a walking matchup problem. How many slot CBs are 6’3”?

And he has broadened his game in the last two years so that he can play all three WR positions. Against the Titans last season, he lined up out wide and beat CB Malcolm Butler off the line for a 56 yard TD on a post route.

Besides, as new NN honcho Kyle Posey noted,

“[The] 49ers were dead last in red zone TD percentage last year at 41.8%. 22 of Jordan Matthews 26 TDs have come in the red zone.”

Both of these elements were displayed in this TD against Washington last year. He lined up wide, then cut inside for a physical TD catch right at the goal line. That is something the Niners desperately need.

On top of all that, he’s funny and outspoken. The Eagles traded him to icy Buffalo for his fourth (ill-fated, injury-ridden) season, in return for CB Ronald Darby, and Matthews famously told longtime Philly reporter Les Bowen that he became a dad as a result.

“There wasn’t anything to do there but each other.”

He also spoke out last year about the Eagles bad training staff, which oversaw a rash of injuries (sound familiar?) including an unreported back fracture of his close friend, quarterback Carson Wentz. That outspokenness, along with the re-signings of DeSean Jackson and Nelson Agholor, might be factors why he was released despite his production

Posting up slot CBs is not the only reason that Matthews’ unusual size matters. I’m sure coach Shanahan would love to get teams’ tallest CBs switched on to him, freeing up Pettis and Goodwin against shorter coverage. But the real reason I think Shanahan might love Matthews is for his blocking.

What? Blocking as the reason to sign a wide receiver? Yes. Last week we talked about Shanahan’s radically RB-based offense, as demonstrated by the team’s free agent signing of RB Tevin Coleman rather than, say, WR Tyrell Williams.

And a physical, 6’3” receiver in the slot is a great addition to an outside-zone-based run game. Matthews has always been an enthusiastic and effective blocker.

A lot of teams have created solid running games, with an effective offensive line and a skilled back like Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell. It takes a real investment of personnel, money and picks, but it’s a great way to set up a play-action scheme like Shanny’s.

What Shanahan revealed last year is an aspect of the run game that modern NFL trends toward the pass have obscured. Once you have strong OL, if your running backs are especially fast, it doesn’t take a whole lot more investment of resources to turn a 6-yard run into a 23-yard run.

You just need to scheme for it, and add downfield blocking to your mix. This is what Chip Kelly did at Oregon, but was never quite able to achieve in the NFL. And he picked Jordan Matthews in the second round of his second draft as part of his attempt to make it happen.

Kelly’s Philly teams had great WR blocking, once DeSean Jackson was gone, and one of the best blocking receivers was a veteran named Miles Austin, now an offensive quality control coach for the Niners. He mentored Matthews in Philly and recruited him to the team this offseason, Matthews told team reporter Keiana Martin.

Watch the film of Matt Breida’s explosive runs from last year, the same plays that Shanahan had imagined Jerick McKinnon executing before he ripped up his ACL. Very often you will see fullback Kyle Juszczyk destroy a linebacker who’s rushing to make the tackle, right in the thick of the hole, as Breida runs inches behind his back. They had amazing chemistry on the timing between them.

Matthews will be there to do the same thing if Juice is not in the play, or better yet, do the same thing to the safety at the third level. That could turn a 23-yard gain into a touchdown.

Just as in route running, size is key to a slot receiver’s ability to block, right? Well, don’t say that to Trent Taylor, or he might knock you on your ass the way he did the Seahawks larger CB Justin Coleman (with expert timing that drew a 15-yard penalty for retaliation, to boot).

Taylor is on a mission to prove that pancaking is in your heart, not your height. Even though he’s the smallest player on the team at 5’8”, that fierce attitude prompted tight end George Kittle to offer rare words of admiration.

“You can go back and watch any game that Trent’s in and he’s like — I don’t want to say ‘feisty’ because that makes him sound like he’s small. But he’s the biggest prick on the field.”

Maybe Shanahan can put them both in at the same time for massive downfield run support. “You hit him high, and I’ll hit him low.” Whatever he schemes up, it should be fun to watch.