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Could the 49ers find their new Jalen Hurd in this year’s draft?

That name is forbidden, but Elijah Higgins’ skill set should greatly intrigue the Niners

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The 49ers have had their fair share of draft misses during Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s tenure with the team, but one of the most frustrating surrounds Jalen Hurd.

You remember Jalen Hurd, right?

To be honest, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about him. Hurd, having been selected as a third-round pick in 2019, never played a regular-season game for the 49ers owing to a series of injuries. He spent each of his three seasons on injured reserve, with his most memorable contributions, a pair of preseason touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys.

He was never able to build on those hugely encouraging flashes and, though the 49ers possess an offense bursting at the seams with diverse skill-position players, Hurd represents the one that got away for San Francisco.

The Niners planned to use Hurd, a former running back at Tennessee, as a wide receiver-tight end hybrid, having operated as a wideout after transferring from Baylor.

San Francisco does have more pressing needs, predominantly on the defensive line, but could the 49ers find a player to operate in a role they envisioned for Hurd in this year’s draft?

There could be a candidate on their doorstep in Stanford’s Elijah Higgins.

Higgins is entering the draft as a wide receiver, but his size and athletic profile indicate that a move to tight end could be a prosperous one.

He measured in at 6’3” and 235 pounds and ran a 40-yard dash of 4.54 seconds, with that combination of size and good speed presenting a tantalizing blend regardless of his position.

An impressive Combine workout saw him post a Relative Athletic Score of 8.99 out of 10, athleticism that could improve any offense if harnessed properly, but his physical profile and testing scores do make Higgins something of a tweener.

Higgins is massive for a wide receiver but undersized for a tight end, or at least a traditional tight end. However, when changing his position from receiver to tight end, RAS gave Higgins a ‘great’ explosion grade and an ‘elite’ speed grade.

In terms of historical comparisons among tight ends, RAS saw Evan Engram as the tight end whose profile is most similar to his. Engram was just franchised by the Jaguars after an impressive season in the move tight end role.

That could well end up being the capacity Higgins fills at the next level, with his skill set one that can allow him to succeed largely irrespective of where he lines up.

At Stanford, Higgins spent much of his time in the slot and consistently used his size intelligently to create separation when lined up against smaller defenders. San Francisco, of course, already has a player who can fill the ‘power slot’ role in Jauan Jennings. While Jennings is a better route-runner than Higgins, he does not possess the same kind of speed.

Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of Higgins’ game is how he maintains separation with his speed once he gets open downfield, his proficiency for defeating coverage and impressive ball-tracking and concentration as a catcher of the ball seeing him rack up a career-high 704 receiving yards in his final season for a dismal Stanford team.

Higgins’ speed and the smoothness with which he moves in the open field gives him yards after catch upside and, though he did not operate as a running back in college, the 49ers could use him sporadically on end arounds and designed hand-offs as Stanford did occasionally in his final season.

Despite his lack of in-line blocking experience, it is not difficult to envisage Higgins excelling as both an F tight end and a H-back. He was asked to block by Stanford in tighter formations and demonstrated a willingness and aggressive attitude when doing so, with his frame an obvious advantage in this area.

There are doubts about his ability to impact the game when lined up as an outside receiver, but Higgins’ abilities and athleticism should see him find a home as an F-receiver/tight end hybrid who can dictate the matchups in the slot that are growing ever more important in the modern NFL.

Moreover, he has the potential as a blocker to play as an H-back or even eventually as an in-line tight end, where his receiving talents could see him do serious damage when leaked out into pass patterns.

Throw in the possibility of occasionally getting him into space as a ball-carrier out of the backfield, as Stanford did, and you have a player from a local school who could be extremely enticing for Shanahan and a 49ers team in need of help behind George Kittle at tight end.

Higgins is not as well-rounded as Hurd was in terms of his past experience of playing different positions, but he could offer the 49ers a lot of what they were looking for in the third round four years ago.