• Geoff Castaneda

Searching for Gold: Why Shi Smith Should be Drafted by 49ers in Round 5

Image Credit: University of South Carolina

I’ll be the first to admit it: I am not an NFL draft fiend. I don’t have an altar set in tribute to Mel Kiper Jr. or Todd McShay, I don’t spend the offseason completing mock drafts, and I’ve never tweeted a scouting profile for a draft prospect. Perhaps it’s because I only casually follow college football. Or maybe, I’ve experienced too much disappointment. There was a time, long ago, when I bought the hype of “Player X” from the “University of Y”. You know, the “can’t miss” prospect who flamed out of the league after three or so uneventful seasons. You can imagine my surprise when our editor asked me to participate in the 49ersHub mock draft. I was uneasy about being the least certain voice in the room. But then I realized, Trent Baalke’s success rate in the NFL draft is about as high as a relief pitcher’s batting average. And hell, he’s still employed. So, how hard can it be?

Photo Credit: 49ers

History has shown that the 5th round of the NFL draft can be a treasure trove of under-the-radar talent. Some names with 49ers ties that immediately come to mind are Richard Sherman (No. 154), Stefon Diggs (No. 146), Tyreek Hill (165), and some tight end from the University of Iowa, George Little? Or maybe it was Kittle (No. 146). The 5th Round and beyond reveal the talent of a franchise’s scouting department. The mid-rounds are about finding value and scheme compatibility in otherwise undervalued players, a la Moneyball.

The first of the 49ers’ two selections in the 5th Round comes at No. 155. With the early rounds dedicated to securing the Faithful’s next franchise quarterback, a future starting cornerback, and Mike McGlinchey and Dee Ford’s eventual replacements, Round 5 is all about filling a need at wide receiver and returner.

Photo Credit: University of South Carolina

Shiyun Smith, a.k.a Shi Smith, was the University of South Carolina’s leading receiver in 2020. The 5’10”, 186-pound wideout totaled 57 receptions for 633 yards, and four touchdowns in nine starts. Draft aficionados predict the versatile receiver will find a home in the slot on Sundays. NFL analyst Lance Zierlein notes, “He has an ability to slip and accelerate past press coverage. He will primarily work the first two levels of the field and he’s very tough to pull in throws in traffic, but he takes on excessive punishment at times with the way he plays.” That sounds like another former Gamecocks receiver who donned the Red and Gold on Draft Night 2019. Smith’s college teammate, Deebo Samuel, spoke to their common physicality with NBCSN Bay Area, “You see when he gets the ball in his hands, he makes something happen. It’s the mentality that we have. The coaches did a good job of instilling that when we were at South Carolina.”

An underrated part of Smith’s game is his body control, adjustments to the ball, and ability to separate at the line of scrimmage. Although his modest size may not allow him to “play above the rim” at the NFL level, Smith could be effective in the red zone utilizing his agility and route-running technique. At his best, Smith has the potential to be a valuable third down and red zone option from the slot.

The 49ers have struggled to find an impactful return man since Ted Ginn Jr. left for Carolina. Players like LaMichael James, Bruce Ellington, Trent Taylor, Dante Pettis, and Richie James have come and gone with varying degrees of success. Smith has experience as a kickoff returner, and at minimum, would give the 49ers another option. His 4.43 second 40-yard dash time is near the top of the 2021 draft class and his physicality means he’s only one broken tackle away from taking one to the house.

The 49ers are looking for a player to lay claim to the third/slot receiver role. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk have pulled double-duty operating as both starting outside receivers and slot fill-ins. San Francisco has very few holes on offense but a fair amount of uncertainty behind their star wide receivers. The 49ers are looking to replace Kendrick Bourne’s production and the unfulfilled promises of Trent Taylor. Shi Smith is the prospect that can maximize the slot position in Kyle Shanahan’s offense and turn the wide receiver room into a true three-headed monster.

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