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NFL draft cold takes: Why I was wrong about Jalen Hurd and Kaden Smith

Hindsight is always 20/20 but I was pretty confident these two 2019 draft picks would stick around and be productive for the 49ers

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The NFL Draft is full of hits and misses. Plenty of teams have struck gold in the draft in every round and those same teams have an equal if not larger number of flops in every round. Everyone from fans and casual observers to online draft analysts to NFL scouts themselves make any number of evaluations based on the available information and come away feeling confident in their picks until the moment that player fades away a year or two later.

As a writer who has primarily covered the 49ers since 2016, I have dabbled in a little bit of draft analysis each offseason, as much as my schedule allows, and have had some correct and incorrect takes on players I thought were good or bad. For example, in 2017, my top 3 quarterbacks were DeShone Kizer, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes.

Yes, I had Kizer as a top quarterback in that draft class. Why? I saw the same traits in Kizer that I did in Watson and Mahomes and felt all three would be successful with Kyle Shanahan.

We know what happened to Kizer. He faded away into obscurity after never catching on with the Browns. Since his rookie year, he’s bounced around to the Packers, Raiders, and Titans as a practice squad member.

Typically, I’ll break down the tape of a given player the 49ers draft after fact because I can focus more on the 49ers specific content at that point. Two players I thought would stick long term and be highly productive for the 49ers were Jalen Hurd and Kaden Smith.

Jalen Hurd

The 49ers ended up selecting Jalen Hurd out of Baylor University in the third round of the 2019 draft. At the time, as I wrote for 49ers Webzone, the pick seemed like a natural fit for Shanahan’s offense, even with someone like Terry McLaurin still on the board. The Baylor receiver was formerly a running back for the University of Tennessee before transferring to Baylor to play wide receiver.

Hurd had concerns with his long term physical health if he continued his football career as a running back.

“I didn’t just do this on a whim. I researched it,” Hurd said. “Running backs last 3.5 years in the NFL. Wide receivers can last 10 or more years. Receivers are more valued than running backs in the NFL, and I can play this game a lot longer and can be more valuable as a receiver. It’s not just a position and career change, it’s a life change.”

He was nearly a 1000 yard receiver at Baylor with one season at the position. He caught 68 passes for 946 yards and three touchdowns. He added four more rushing touchdowns for Baylor that same season and had 1155 scrimmage yards.

He seemed like the perfect fit for Shanahan in an offense that was deemed positionless with how the 49ers like to move and line up their running backs, tight ends, and wide receivers in their various personnel groupings all over the formation. Together with Deebo Samuel, whom the 49ers drafted one round prior to selecting Hurd, I thought his versatility would have been a huge upgrade for an offense that would eventually make a Super Bowl run.

I was wrong but I held out hope that he could battle through his injuries and turn into the player I analyzed on tape at Tennessee and Baylor. I said he had the versatility to be a vital piece but I did not take into account his injury history previous to the NFL, which may have played a role.

Kaden Smith

I still think about this draft pick from time to time and wonder what could have been. Of all their 2019 draft picks, Stanford tight end Kaden Smith might have been the most enjoyable to watch. Everything about his tape seemed to translate to offense that could’ve used his skill set in run blocking and pass catching at Stanford.

In another piece at 49ers Webzone, I wrote that he might have been the steal of the draft. Despite being a sixth round pick of the 49ers in 2019, I thought at the very least he could supplant every tight end on the roster except George Kittle, making him a regular feature as the second tight end.

As a receiver, he seemingly caught everything thrown at him. This is just one example. That tweet has a dozen other examples of him displaying an elite catch radius as a tight end as Stanford liked to run him down the seam quite a bit. His consistency catching the ball was honestly better than George Kittle too (at least coming out college).

As a run blocker, his physicality rivaled Kittle’s as well. There are plenty of other examples of it in that thread. And coming from a traditionally run heavy offense in college, what wasn’t there to like about this selection?

Smith lasted through week one of the 2019 season and was cut the day before week two, only to be claimed off waivers by the New York Giants a few days later where he remained as a regular feature of the Giants offense until he was he placed on injured reserve in December of last season and then cut in March when he couldn’t pass a physical.

The player I once thought was the steal of the 2019 draft and who would turn in a viable second tight end with his versatility remains a free agent as of this writing after a lackluster career thus far.