Rejoice, 49ers fans, for football is almost here. We are two weeks away from the start of training camp, tentatively scheduled to begin Thursday, July 26, marking the beginning of a six-month-plus marathon that spans the NFL season. KNBR will count down the days by highlighting San Francisco’s most important players, from No. 14 to No. 1, accompanied by coach bios for each day preceding camp.
Without further ado, let’s highlight fullback Kyle Juszczyk, our 14th-most important 49ers player in the upcoming season.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Kyle Juszczyk
The 49ers made Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in the league — by a wide margin — prior to the 2017 season. After spending the first four seasons of his career with the Baltimore Ravens, he signed with the 49ers coming off a Pro Bowl campaign.
Juszczyk inked a four-year deal worth $21 million, including $7 million guaranteed and a $5 million signing bonus. It is the largest contract for a fullback in NFL history. Patrick Dimarco is the second-highest paid fullback in the league at $8.4 million, which equates to just 40 percent of Juszczyk’s deal.
In Kyle Shanahan’s first year as 49ers head coach, he ensured having a fullback capable of excelling in the many different tasks that his diverse, complex offensive scheme requires. Juszczyk played 35.82 percent of San Francisco’s offensive snaps last year, the most of any fullback in the NFL. Dimarco ranked in the top-three for fullback snaps in each of Shanahan’s final two seasons with the Falcons.
Shanahan’s pro-style, I-formation-heavy offense requires fullbacks to do several things very well, making Juszczyk an indispensable asset. Shanahan used 21 personnel — two backs, two receivers, and one tight end— on a league-leading 31 percent of plays in 2017.
He frequently moved around Juszczyk pre-snap to disguise offensive looks and expose defensive looks. Sometimes, he set in motion toward the direction of the run, while during others, such as in the video below, he moved to the opposite side to seal the backside of the zone.
— Raiders Analysis (@RaidersAnalysis) January 2, 2018
Juszczyk is fast enough — he ran a 4.71 40-yard dash at his Pro Day in 2013 — to lead block for San Francisco’s dynamic ballcarriers. He used that speed and showcased his hands as a receiver, catching 33 of his 42 targets, good for a team-best 79 percent catch rate last season. His 315 receiving yards led all NFL fullbacks.
He was not prominently featured in the passing game, but he was strategically incorporated within Shanahan’s crafty play-calling. Take the play below, for example. Juszczyk fakes a block and runs a wheel route to acres of open space, punishing an antsy Jaguars defense with a chunk completion upfield.
— Raiders Analysis (@RaidersAnalysis) January 2, 2018
Shanahan periodically deployed Juszczyk on the line as a tight end in misdirection, too.
And like with the FB, Kyle will use the TE sift on bootleg plays too. Juszczyk is a FB, but lines up as a TE here. He sifts back across the line and into the flat, wide open for a big gain. pic.twitter.com/KkAPpAKa4Q
— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) July 2, 2018
Like the 49ers as a whole, Juszczyk blossomed upon Jimmy Garoppolo’s arrival. Juszczyk amassed 17 catches in the team’s final five games, all of which resulted in wins, including a career-best five-catch, 76-yard performance against the Jaguars in Week 16.
Juszczyk’s debut season with the 49ers culminated in his second straight Pro Bowl appearance. He doesn’t always jump off the screen — how many fullbacks do? — but his versatility in Shanahan’s offense is an important requisite for its success.
COACH SPOTLIGHT: Mike McDaniel, run game specialist
The NFL coaching tree is laden with nuanced titles such as ‘specialists’ and ‘quality control coaches.’ Those who fill these roles may not be widely recognized, but they are important in the preparation and everyday operations.
Mike McDaniel qualifies. He enters his second consecutive season as San Francisco’s run game specialist and 12th total NFL season. Aside from his debut season with the Denver Broncos in 2005, McDaniel has worked with Shanahan at each of his five stops throughout the past decade, including Houston, Cleveland, Washington, Atlanta, and presently San Francisco.
And many of the common praises of Shanahan — intelligent, innovative, and able to maximize talent— encompass McDaniel, too.
McDaniel primarily worked with receivers at each of his previous stops, helping Pierre Garcon lead the league with 113 receptions with the Redskins in 2013, then working with Julio Jones as he recorded 1,871 receiving yards — the second-most ever in a single season — with the Falcons in 2015. Garcon called McDaniel “probably the smartest” of any position coach he has played for, USA TODAY’s Tom Pelissero wrote in a profile of McDaniel last year. Shanahan and McDaniel have molded obscure receivers such as Andrew Hawkins and Taylor Gabriel into bonafide playmakers.
McDaniel, now leading San Francisco’s running game, has another toy fresh out of the box: former Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon. Like those aforementioned players, McKinnon has all the physical tools to blossom in an offense system oozing creativity, though he has never had the featured role that now awaits him.
San Francisco ranked 21st in the NFL last year with 104 rushing yards per game. With Carlos Hyde out and McKinnon in, joining speedsters Matt Breida and Joe Williams, McDaniel and Shanahan have a running back corps better equipped for this offense.
Shanahan will always get the credit, and rightfully so, but don’t forget about Mitchell, his right-hand man who has enjoyed the same success every step of the way.