The San Francisco 49ers double-dipped at the wide receiver position on Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft. Shanahan’s plans for wideout Deebo Samuel are clear, but what do the Niners have in store for their rookie RB-turned-WR Jalen Hurd?
One of the worst-kept secrets of the 2019 NFL Draft was the San Francisco 49ers’ plans for their first two draft picks.
Luckily for the Niners, the top prospect in the draft — Ohio State’s defensive end Nick Bosa — was available with the team’s second overall selection. And as we predicted, the lack of an elite prospect at wide receiver made the second round the perfect spot to draft a starter at the position, as 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch snatched up South Carolina wideout Deebo Samuel, who caught the attention of the team and Locked on 49ers podcast host Brian Peacock after an impressive week at the Senior Bowl:
Congratulations to our Reese’s Senior Bowl Offensive Practice Players of the Week:
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) January 25, 2019
Then, things got a little crazy — even before the 49ers’ head-scratching decision to draft a punter, Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky, in the fourth round. Despite the team’s glaring roster needs in the secondary and elsewhere, the 49ers used the No. 67 overall selection of the 2019 NFL Draft on another wide receiver, Baylor’s Jalen Hurd. But is the former Tennessee running back actually a wide receiver? I sat down with Aaron Wilson of Insidethe49.com to review Hurd’s college tape and discuss how the third-round draft pick fits into the 49ers’ plans in 2019:
CW: Were you surprised when the 49ers went with back-to-back wide receivers in Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft?
AW: Considering the number of holes in the Niners’ current roster, drafting a second wideout seemed a bit unnecessary and was definitely surprising.
CW: I agree. Initially, the 49ers’ following two selections appeared to be a pair of luxury picks you would expect from a perennial Super Bowl contender, and not a four-win team coming off its fourth-straight consecutive losing season. Given “Lynchahan’s” failures in the third and fourth rounds of the draft, yet another miss will surely call the front office’s talent evaluation process into question.
Although the 49ers’ 2018 receiving corps lacked a 500-yard receiver, the team appeared to enter the offseason in fairly good shape at the position, partially due to the emergence of tight end George Kittle as an elite talent in the passing game. After drafting wide receivers Dante Pettis and Samuel in the second round of consecutive drafts, I expected the 49ers to address a more glaring position-of-need, particularly in the team’s oft-injured secondary.
I didn’t know much about Hurd prior to the draft, outside of his transition from running back to wide receiver. But after reviewing his college game film, it appears that Hurd has more to his game than most prospects at the position, and we all know that being multiple is an ability Shanahan covets from his offensive playmakers. What did you see from Hurd when you broke down his game film during his single season at Baylor, as well as his three years at Tennessee?
AW: During the 49ers’ press conference after Day 2 of the draft, Shanahan was quick to declare Hurd a “receiver” and not another “offensive weapon.” Although Shanahan said Hurd will train with his fellow Niner wideouts, the former running back brings a lot more to the table than your typical wide receiver.
Although he recently measured in at 6-foot-5 and 226 pounds, Hurd played at a heavier weight as a running back in Tennessee, which was evident in his powerful running style. Hurd also displayed a surprising level of short-area quickness for a bigger runner. Although he lacked breakaway speed, his combination of power and elusiveness helped him rack up over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns during in his second college season.
However, after an injury-riddled junior year cut his time in Tennessee short, Hurd chose to change positions, and teams, as the new wideout transferred to Baylor in an effort to extend his career. He sat out the 2017 season at Baylor before snagging 69 balls for 946 yards and four touchdowns in 2018. In addition to his solid year in the receiving game, Hurd was also used in Baylor’s backfield where he added another 209 rushing yards and three TDs:
CW: The fact that Hurd was able to tally 1,155 total yards and seven touchdowns, with the majority of his production coming through the air, was an impressive feat for a first-year wide receiver. Still, although the youngster showed the ability to run effective routes from Shanahan’s playbook like the blaze out and pivot route against college defenders, he has much to learn before becoming a top-end NFL wideout. Luckily, he a pair of former professional wide receiver in Wes Welker and Miles Austin to learn from. Hurd also has Shanahan, who turned Marquise Goodwin from a two-route receiver to a legitimate No. 1 receiving threat in a matter of months.
One area of concern is Hurd’s college utilization in the passing game. Although Baylor often threw out of spread formations, Hurd rarely lined up as an outside receiver. The 49ers’ roster is full of slot receivers, from traditional smaller wideouts like Trent Taylor and Richie James to recent free-agent acquisition Jordan Matthews, who fits the “big slot” mold.
According to Pro Football Focus, nearly all of Hurd’s production came from the slot, where he ranked in the top-10 in both receptions and receiving yardage among college players. If Hurd expects to become more than merely a gadget player and an occasional threat out of the slot, he will need to quickly develop over the offseason in order to establish himself as a viable option on the outside. But even if he begins the 2019 season as a primary slot receiver, the six-foot-five wideout coming over the middle on third down will be a lot for a nickel corner or undersized safety to handle:
An aspect of Hurd’s game that surprised me was his relative ineffectiveness as a blocker. Perhaps this deficiency can be blamed on a lack of experience or proper instruction, but I expected such a violent runner to be a more violent blocker. Hurd’s primary focus this offseason should be his development as a wide receiver. If he plans to become an effective “move” tight end or H-Back, Hurd will need to put significant work into his blocking game in the future.
AW: Hurd’s top priority this offseason will likely be focusing on becoming a complete receiver. If the rookie is a viable passing threat, he will provide Shanahan with the opportunity to take advantage of likely mismatches. During the 49ers’ press conference after Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft, Shanahan discussed this at length; if opposing defenses are unsure whether San Francisco is in 21 personnel or a multi-wideout set, Hurd’s ability to play both WR and RB will allow Shanahan to attack opponents based on their defensive personnel. Combined with pre-snap motion, both quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers’ rushing attack should benefit from Hurd’s addition to the lineup.
Earlier this month on the Locked on 49ers Podcast, Eric Crocker compared Hurd to New England Patriots wide receiver and part-time running back Cordarrelle Patterson. Last season, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick chose to use Patterson as New England’s lead back during a pair of consecutive victories over the Buffalo Bills and the Green Bay Packers. Patterson was especially effective against light boxes and in short-yardage situations. While Hurd doesn’t have Patterson’s breakaway speed, the former running back is much more difficult to bring to the ground:
Although Hurd was listed as a wide receiver at Baylor, the team continued to utilize him at running back, where he still ran with a similar bruising style that was effective during his time in Tennessee. In fact, his 4.4 yards-per-rush average at Baylor was nearly the same as his 4.5 average during his time with the Vols. Since the 49ers lack a runner with significant size or short-yardage success, Hurd could get the call when the team nears the goal line. Another intriguing use for Hurd is in third-and-short to third-and-mid situations, where San Francisco could motion Hurd from an empty set into the backfield where he has demonstrated the size and strength to push for extra yards:
On early or passing downs, pairing Hurd with a halfback or fullback Kyle Juszczyk beside Garoppolo in shotgun formations would create difficult mismatches for opposing defenses. And if Hurd proves to be effective in the screen game, and on jet sweeps or fly sweeps, the offensive possibilities are endless.
CW: Given the versatility and size of his new wide receiver, Shanahan will likely have specific plans for Hurd when the 49ers reach the red zone. Hurd’s presence on the field will put defenses in a bind, and pre-snap motion will only add to the Niners’ advantage. Also expect significantly more four-wideout sets in 2019, after the team only used four wide receivers on nine plays in 2018 — far less than the 25-play NFL average. Instead of motioning Taylor — an unlikely rushing candidate — out of the backfield, San Francisco will now have a viable option behind Garoppolo if the team decides to run. And, as Brian Peacock recently mentioned, if the 49ers choose to pass without motioning their “running back” to the outside, Garoppolo now has a wide receiver as his target out of the backfield:
AW: Shanahan is one of the NFL’s best coaches at exploiting mismatches and scheming his players into open space. Hurd is another chess piece for Shanahan to move all around the field. Be on the lookout for Hurd in the slot or split out wide, motioning across the formation, or lined up behind Garoppolo in the backfield. Regardless of where he is on the field, wide receiver Jalen Hurd has the tools to make the San Francisco 49ers a better team in 2019.
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