49ers 2020 ‘Who Is?’ series: Jalen Hurd must stay healthy

Jalen Hurd #17 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Jalen Hurd #17 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

Can the 49ers’ 2019 third-round NFL Draft pick, Jalen Hurd, recover enough from a serious back injury?

If there’s one goal for San Francisco 49ers second-year wide receiver Jalen Hurd entering 2020, it’s to have a clean bill of health.

The Niners’ Round 3 NFL Draft pick from 2019 only scantly saw the field during his rookie season, appearing in only two preseason games before suffering what would be a season-ending back injury that landed him on injured reserve. But Hurd was more than impressive during that brief stretch, managing three receptions and two touchdowns in San Francisco’s exhibition opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Including these impressive grabs:

But that back injury was complicated and serious enough to prevent him from even traveling with the team to Miami, Florida for Super Bowl LIV. And while Hurd has since been cleared to resume offseason practices, there is going to remain plenty of concerns for the 6-foot-5 mismatch on that front.

Until he proves otherwise.

It’s important to remember Hurd has yet to take a regular-season snap at the NFL level, so perhaps some hype needs to be watered down a bit heading into 2020.

That said, there’s a lot to like from Hurd’s collegiate tenure and how his skill set could translate into the 49ers offense this season and beyond.

Niner Noise’s annual “Who Is?” series takes a deeper look.

Why Jalen Hurd improves with 49ers in 2020

When considering Hurd, it’s impossible not to look at the unique situation he had at the college level, first as a running back with the Tennessee Volunteers before transferring to Baylor to become a wide receiver.

The stats are interesting enough, although it’s pretty clear the Niners used their third-round pick on Hurd’s raw skill set.

Not his production as a pass catcher:

Jalen Hurd Rushing & Receiving Table
*2018BaylorBig 12SRWR12482094.436994613.7411711559.97

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2020.

Hurd won’t win any footraces with fast defensive backs, having run a 4.64 time at his 2019 pro day. But he wins with an aggressive style of running after the catch, likely stemming from his days as a tailback at Tennessee. On top of that, Hurd’s hands are noticeably smooth for a relatively new receiver.

Overall, it’s impossible not to look at his impressive 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame without being intrigued. NBC Sports Peter King certainly was, thinking back then Hurd could be the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year.

If Hurd latches onto that hype, it’ll be great news for both him and San Francisco.

Why Jalen Hurd regresses with 49ers in 2020

The injury factor is there, and it’s impossible to overlook it.

Trying to, however, it’s also crucial to point out Hurd is still very new to the position and only has a minimal command of the route trees associated with the most basic of offenses. Tack on the serious complexities of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s system, and it’s not hard to understand why Hurd’s transition to an NFL-level wide receiver could be met with serious difficulty.

The 49ers appear to have understood both possible outcomes — the injury factor and Hurd’s inexperience at the position — electing to grab one of Hurd’s former teammates at Tennessee, wide receiver Jauan Jennings, in Round 7 of this year’s NFL Draft.

Jennings, 6-foot-3, also possesses a similar build to Hurd and relies more on physicality than speed. But the former is far more polished at the position and could end up seeing more practice reps in training camp because of this.

As a result, Hurd could easily find himself pushed down the depth chart.

Projected role, impact Jalen Hurd has with 49ers in 2020

Barring an injury designation again, it’s a safe bet the Niners want to put Hurd on their 53-man roster this season. He’s not a lock by any means, largely due to San Francisco boasting a number of bodies at the position already. But he’s certainly on the stronger side of the bubble.

In an ideal world, the Niners see Hurd as a legitimate red-zone threat — an area in which Shanahan has historically struggled and the 2019 squad finished 20th in touchdown efficiency.

Hurd’s size and ability to fight for extra yards after the catch could potentially play out well here, justifying Shanahan’s philosophical switch that receivers in the red zone should rely a bit more on physicality than finesse.

If that’s the case, Hurd can carve out a bit of a niche role on offense, serving as a wide receiver-type player who can be lined up in multiple spots on the field, potentially even as a running back in certain situations.

But none of that will matter if Hurd suffers another injury or setback. And it won’t matter much either if he can’t master the nuances of the position.

Next. 10 players who'll impress during 49ers training camp. dark

For now, Hurd still has plenty of upside. Yet there are more than enough reasons to suggest it’ll never pan out for him at the NFL level either.