Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Every few years, a new wrinkle on offense explodes onto the scene and dominates the scene for a season or two. The Miami Dolphins caught teams completely off guard with their “wildcat” offense, in which running back Ronnie Brown would take a direct snap while the quarterback lined up as a wide receiver. Then came the era of the read-option, with Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III being dual threat runners and passers. Most recently, the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl in team history utilizing the run-pass option with Carson Wentz and Nick Foles. Could 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan be ahead of the curve as his offense moves towards “positionless” personnel groupings?
Traditionally, running backs have been running backs, receivers have been receivers and so on, however, Shanahan is not a traditional offensive mind. He was ahead of the game when he saw the potential in “offensive weapon” Kyle Juszczyk as a Swiss Army Knife for his offensive scheme. Juszczyk has been instrumental not only as a classic blocking fullback but has also been very active in motion before the snap and an oft-forgotten target in the passing game. His flexibility allows the offense to line up in a formation that would conventionally suggest run only to catch the defense on their heels when the quarterback drops back to pass.
Juszczyk was just the tip of the iceberg for Shanahan. Since taking the reins of the team in 2017, the coach has slowly acquired players that cannot be pigeonholed into one specific position. Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman both provide just as much skill as receivers as they do as runners. McKinnon was brought in last year for exactly that purpose before tearing his ACL before the season even began. Newcomer Coleman was signed for his versatility and experience with Shanahan’s system after playing for him in Atlanta. Even he is impressed with what Shanahan is putting together during the offseason program. “[Shanahan] can put guys at multiple positions. He can put us in multiple positions to run different routes. It’s pretty good,” Coleman said during OTAs. “(He’s) definitely more creative than he was in Atlanta, just with everything (he's) doing with the backs and tight ends and receivers.”
The young core of receivers is just as diverse as the running backs. Veteran WR Marquise Goodwin provides Olympic-level speed that he can utilize from the slot, outside or running a jet sweep. Dante Pettis, when healthy, looked every bit worth of his second-round selection as he routinely showed the versatility to run short, intermediate and deep routes, despite being labeled as just a slot receiver coming out of the University of Washington. Then you have rookies Deebo Samuel, who also bears the “slot receiver” moniker, and Jalen Hurd looking to live up to their draft billings as well. Samuel is already turning heads in OTAs with his explosiveness and his ability to create from anywhere on the field. Hurd, a running back for the majority of his college career, is one of the ultimate X-factors for Shanahan’s offense. Alongside Juszczyk, he could become the most versatile player that could line up in the slot, in the backfield or out wide.
Tight end George Kittle proved to be a bona fide superstar when he broke the single-season receiving record for tight ends in 2018. Not just a receiving tight end, Kittle’s blocking prowess is a sight to behold as he drives linebackers and defensive backs into the ground, playing all the way through the whistle. Just like Juszczyk, Kittle being on the field does not tip the defense off to whether the offense is going to run or pass. When sent in motion, he forces the defense to show their hand because defensive coordinators must game-plan for his ability.
When it is all put together for Shanahan, the different combinations of players he will be able to put on the field at any given time will be giving opposing defenses fits. As the offensive players begin the blur the lines of their defined positions, the 49ers could be on the verge of changing the landscape of NFL offenses for years to come. And once again, Kyle Shanahan could be two steps ahead of everyone else.
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