The 49ers continued to make Kyle Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in the NFL by a lot, yet they should also do more to utilize his unique skill set.
And others, perhaps somewhat more keenly aware of his importance, will say Juszczyk’s fresh five-year, $27 million contract signed this offseason is money well spent.
The reality is probably somewhere in between. Would Shanahan’s offense function as well as it has with a lesser-caliber fullback? No. But it probably could get by well enough with few setbacks.
Yet there’s one way Juszczyk’s value to Shanahan and the Niners could increase a lot: have him see more touches on a game-by-game basis.
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Averaging just two touches per game last year, and even less back in 2019 when San Francisco was making its Super Bowl run, Juszczyk’s value would increase aplenty if Shanahan implemented more offensive plays featuring him.
Considering the money the 49ers are spending for a lead blocker who can receive and run the ball, it would be a wise choice.
Let’s take a look at Niner Noise’s latest “Who is?” installment.
Why Kyle Juszczyk improves with 49ers in 2021
Now at 30 years old, the clock can start ticking on the latter half of Juszczyk’s otherwise stellar career.
That said, his ability to contribute at a high level shouldn’t go away anytime soon. For starters, Pro Football Focus already gave him a respectable 65.7 overall grade last season. And his value to be a mismatch threat anywhere on the field makes him a potent weapon in the receiving game.
Yet that’s where Juszczyk can get that improvement.
Juszczyk essentially fills a role as a No. 2 pass-catching tight end behind the All-Pro, George Kittle. Few NFL defenses are properly equipped to defend against two legitimate receiving tight ends, and there have been more than enough instances where Juszczyk has been left uncovered or has simply beaten his man in coverage.
Like many of these plays below:
With most defenders focusing on Kittle, Juszczyk is often found wide open. It would be wise for Shanahan to take advantage of that.
In another way, though, perhaps Shanahan has. Juszczyk enjoyed a career-high 17 rush attempts for 64 yards last season. If you’re going to scratch the fullback label and go with “offensive weapon,” perhaps the uptick in carries a year ago is an indication of this happening more in 2021.
Why Kyle Juszczyk regresses with 49ers in 2021
Blocking is still going to be Juszczyk’s forte within the offense, and one could make the argument this element regressed a bit last season.
After three straight years of PFF run-blocking grades of 70.0 or higher, Juszczyk’s 2021 run-blocking grade of 63.2 is slightly concerning. It’s not awful, and one needs to take into account a banged-up offense and mismatched offensive line, yet it could be a small cause for concern as he hits the wrong side of 30 years old.
It’s also possible Shanahan elects to use his other receiving weapons more in 2021, especially those who missed the bulk of last year with injuries, such as Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, thereby taking touches away from Juszczyk.
As such, his touches in both the receiving and running games could go back to the kind of levels seen back in 2019, thus lessening his overall value to the Niners.
Projected role, impact for 49ers
Not much should change for Juszczyk with regards to his top overall role within San Francisco’s offense.
He’s still a notable lead blocker and someone, who at the very least, can serve as a decoy or mismatch, at least drawing the attention of a defender in order to take attention away from someone else like Kittle or Samuel.
Considering there isn’t much competition for Juszczyk in the ranks of Pro Bowlers, it’s likely 2021 will reveal yet another NFL all-star campaign for the former Harvard standout. The 49ers certainly didn’t want to let Juszczyk get away from their grasps when NFL free agency hit last March, and the league-leading contract at the position he received is indicative of that.
Nevertheless, it would still be wise for Shanahan and the Niners to feature Juszczyk as a serious offensive weapon and more than just a blocker and decoy.
Doing so would make San Francisco’s offense that much more potent.