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Why the 49ers selected TE Kaden Smith

In 3 plays

Stanford v Washington Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers selected Stanford tight end Kaden Smith at No. 176 in the NFL Draft. We haven’t really talked about the sixth round pick, so let’s do that today. Here are three plays that highlight why the Niners selected Smith.

Contested catch king

One thing is evident, Smith does not need to be open to be successful. Watch Smith go against Utah. You’re not going to be wowed by his route running. What will impress you is his ability to catch the ball when a defender is hanging on his back. There were a handful of contested catches in that game. This was the best one.

Because Smith won’t win with athleticism, he’s going to have to win this way in the NFL. Luckily, he proved that won’t be an issue at Stanford.

On the play above, notice how he protects the ball at the end. Subtle things like that is when you can tell a receiver is nuanced. Being able to hold on to the ball through contact is another trait that Smith does at a high level.

This leads me to believe that Kyle Shanahan views Smith as a possible red zone threat, and we will touch on that in a little bit. If Jimmy Garoppolo will give him a chance, Smith has shown he’s more of a 70/30 receiver than a 50/50 in contested situations.

Stretch the seams

One thing that is consistent with Smith and where he produced in the Cardinal offense in 2018 was his ability to stretch the seams. Stanford threw him the ball down the middle of the field and he came through time and time again.

In the Washington game, that play was a touchdown. Using Smith as a vertical option down the middle of the field will allow the 49ers to create mismatches for George Kittle underneath. It will also allow force defenses to stay in their “base” packages, because of the threat to run the ball.

Smith isn’t the greatest run blocking tight end, but the effort is there. The threat of a vertical threat is what matters. Even throwing him the ball a couple times a game to make the defense honor him is worth it, especially knowing the quality receiver Smith is.

Another red zone threat

Consistently making plays in traffic in the most congested part of the field. That’s what a lot of the catches look like that Smith makes. When you have the worst red zone offense in the NFL, you are going to overcorrect. That’s what 49ers did this offseason. They went and got a combination of big-bodied, strong receivers that can hang on in the toughest situations. In the case of Smith, he gives the Garoppolo a target that can be trusted in the red zone.

This play came out of 12 personnel, where the offense has two tight ends on the field. One thing that I’m interested in seeing is how much more two tight end sets we will see in 2019, especially in the red zone. The 49ers played small in 2018. With the additions they’ve made during this offseason, my guess is that changes.

Smith is a Day 3 athlete, and if he’s ever going to become more than a number two tight end, he’ll have to figure out how to separate consistently. But just talking as a pure receiver in regards to catching, adjusting, holding on to and protecting the ball, Smith is superb. When you have the type of ball skills that Smith does, there’s a role for you on offense. Shanahan should be able to find one for Smith, even if it is minimal. Being able to put a package together of 15-20 plays that feature two tight end sets—where the defense has to honor you, will be a change in 2019.