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Why the 49ers culture and player development shouldn’t go unnoticed

Kyle Shanahan spoke about how fortunate both he and John Lynch were to have building blocks like George Kittle and Fred Warner

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

We can debate about which member of the 49ers is most deserving of the MVP until we’re blue in the face. George Kittle said after the Cardinals game that he thinks it’s Christian McCaffrey.

We’ll make a case for McCaffrey at some point this week, but, until then, let’s discuss how the Niners got themselves into a situation where two players are in the top-5 of the current MVP odds.

First, it’s the team’s culture. On Monday afternoon, head coach Kyle Shanahan shared how important it was to have building blocks like George Kittle and Fred Warner as both him and John Lynch were trying to get the Niners off the ground back in 2017:

“Huge. What we have here is 1000% based off of just the people that are in this building. We were presented a very good opportunity by the Yorks to be able to make those decisions and try to get the right people in here to build a culture. Our culture’s a hundred percent off the people in this building.

You go back to our early years and some of those big Draft picks our first year, especially being George that first year, Fred the second year, I want to say we got Deebo in here the third year. But even guys like Ross Dwelley, guys like bringing in [FB Kyle Juszczyk] Juice, [LB] Dre Greenlaw.

There’s so many guys who have been the type of character that we look for. When you do hit on those guys, and you get those guys here, it’s really cool for younger guys to come in and see kind of how things are done. You don’t have to talk as much as we used to when we got here because they just watch guys like that do it the right way, and they try to emulate them because they know how successful they’ve been on the field.”

Kittle, Warner, and Deebo were all home-grown talents who received record-setting or like extensions. Brandon Aiyuk may join that trio this offseason.

Dropping in an All-Pro at left tackle and running back into your offense felt like a luxury. But Trent Williams and Christian McCaffrey have proven to be instrumental in the 49ers quest for a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Highlighting the 49ers wide receivers — specifically Aiyuk and Deebo — as run blockers not only points to getting your star players to buy into your culture, but it also speaks to the team’s player development.

Much has been made about Aiyuk emerging from Shanahan’s doghouse due to poor blocking early in his career. Shanahan has downplayed that topic as recently as this season. Now, we’re seeing clips of Aiyuk blocking 65 yards down the field.

Deebo, despite San Francisco scoring 45 points against Arizona in Week 15, still believes the team isn’t playing to its full potential. What did he highlight? Blocking, of course.

If you watched McCaffrey in college, it’s not a surprise that he’s the league leader in rushing. But the rest of the core players on the 49ers weren’t highly touted coming out of the NFL Draft.

Aiyuk was the highest selection, but he was the sixth receiver taken in the 2020 NFL Draft. Sixth! He wasn’t even the first player taken in that round by the 49ers.

The year prior, two tight ends, Marquise Brown, and N’Keal Harry were selected in the first round. Deebo was not.

Go back the year before that, and you’ll have to scroll to pick No. 70 to find the linebacker from BYU.

The year prior, the tight end from Iowa fell to the fifth round due to lack of production and various injuries, despite elite athletic testing.

The 49ers bet on each of these players' demeanor, and have gotten the best out of them individually. As someone who was in Iowa City during Kittle’s college career, never in a million years would I have thought he’d evolve into one of the best tight ends in the league.

Arizona State is 25 minutes from me. Aiyuk’s talent has never been an issue. We’re seeing how consistency and work ethic and transform a promising young wideout into one of the game’s best players.

Samuel’s ascension began at the Senior Bowl, where the 49ers coached him. Warner played nickel in college at times. Those two were thought of as role players. Now, they’re stars.

From the culture to player development, you have to credit the 49ers coaching staff for how they’ve handled the players and let them be themselves, while still maximizing every ounce of talent they have.