Image Credit: Associated Press
The opposing defensive coordinator sees San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan trot out four wide receivers along with superstar tight end George Kittle. The defensive coordinator does what most defensive coordinators do when they see a five wide set coming at them; he inserts six defensive backs and some combination of five defensive lineman and linebackers. So what’s the big deal?
The fourth wide receiver is Jalen Hurd, and Kittle is a hell of a blocker. Instead of a five-wide set, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo steps into a pistol formation with Hurd to his side and Kittle lined up inline with a tackle. The front five and Kittle easily handle the five man rush and you’d be smart to bet right tackle Mike McGlinchey is going to make it to the second level, leaving Hurd with one safety to beat.
All because of his versatility.
Hurd is a true offensive weapon. Playing both running back and wide receiver well in college, Hurd is one of those position-less players who could really leave a mark on the NFL. After playing running back at the University of Tennessee for three years and coming within 440 yards of the school’s all-time rushing yards record, Hurd transferred to Baylor where they agreed to let him play wide receiver.
There have been plenty of offensive-weapon-type players in the NFL history books. Players like Eric Metcalf and Darren Sproles, who are small, shifty and excellent in space, have dominated the idea of an offensive-weapon player.
Hurd is much different than these players in that at 6’ 5” and 226 pounds Hurd is more wide receiver than scatback. His running style is more of a pounding in-your-face runner. As a wide receiver he is incredibly raw. In his one season playing wide receiver at Baylor he caught 69 passes for 946 yards with 4 touchdowns. He added 48 rushes for 209 yards and three more touchdowns to his receiving totals over the team’s twelve-game season.
Watching his highlight film, you’ll notice his ability to shake loose against cornerbacks, despite his limited time playing receiver;the experience as a running back has given him the ability to be shifty in space, even with his height. He is a jump-ball and end zone target, and even has the ability to be a one cut power-back in the redzone. Some fans were screaming for tall one dimensional recievers to be drafted, and general manager John Lynch and Shanahan said, “hold my beer.” Hurd is not just a fade target from the five yard line. He could set up a fade and beat the cornerback inside. He could come into the huddle and a group of players the defense sees no rb in, sets up in a goal line utilizing Hurd as a RB. Then later in the season a team might not jump to that extra defensive back when they see that same grouping, setting up a receiver for a major mismatch.
When you add Hurd’s versatility to the trio of Matt Breida, Jerick McKinnon, and Tevin Coleman, Shanahan could truly keep the defensive coordinator in the dark when sending player packages into the huddle. Kirk Larrabee quoted Tevin Coleman talking about Shanahan’s creativity: “He can put guys in multiple positions, he can put us in multiple positions to run different routes, so it’s pretty good,” and he went on to explain that the backs were running a lot more receiver routes, and getting split out wide more often.
The big question with Hurd is how quickly he will acclimate to playing a wide receiver-ish position in the NFL. Hurd has been sitting out physical reps during OTAs due to an ACL injury, and therefore missing out on those ever important early off-season reps. New wide receivers coach Wes Welker said, “With his size and athleticism of being able to play running back, being able to play wide receiver, being able to do a lot of different things, that’s a great matchup for us. Losing these reps and the different things we want to do with him kind of sets him back. So he’s got a lot of making up to and a lot of work ahead of him to get caught up.”
With the offense that Shanahan is building around dynamic athletic football players like Hurd, Breida, McKinnon, Coleman, Kittle, Dante Pettis and Hurd’s fellow rookie Deebo Samuels, the sky is the limit for these players. As long as Hurd can return from his December knee surgery and understand his role in Shanahan’s playbook, he should contribute 500 combined yards and four or five touchdowns to the offense,quality numbers for a player who should be the fourth or fifth wide receiver on the depth chart.
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