Kyle Shanahan's focus soon shifts to quarterback evaluations

Kyle Shanahan's focus soon shifts to quarterback evaluations

HOUSTON – When Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan says he has no idea how he would rank the quarterbacks in the upcoming draft, he is not playing some elaborate game of subterfuge.

Shanahan said he generally does not even know the names of the players who are finalists for the Heisman Trophy, let alone compile any kind of meaningful list of the quarterbacks under consideration at the top of the draft.

“I’ve never paid attention to college football during the season,” Shanahan said Thursday. “Come March, you know everyone and you catch up to the rest of the world.”

The 49ers have a lot to figure out when it comes to their quarterback situation. Shanahan, the presumptive head coach, will unquestionably have the most powerful voice in the conversation when it comes to determining the organization’s plan of attack for the offseason.

After all, Shanahan essentially picked 49ers general manager John Lynch for the job. The two men are expected to work in collaboration to restock the team’s roster. The talent level of the team eroded under the direction of former general manager Trent Baalke, who did not draft a quarterback who was able to stick on the team after Colin Kaepernick in 2011.

[RELATED: Kirk Cousins praises 49ers for hiring Lynch, calls Shanahan 'offensive genius']

The 49ers do not have a quarterback assured of returning next season. Kaepernick could opt out of his contract or the 49ers could release him to avoid being on the hook for his scheduled $14.9 million pay. Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and Thad Lewis are scheduled for unrestricted free agency.

Shanahan said he usually does not start looking at the draft until a month after the season ends. With the Falcons’ season lasting a month longer due to the team’s march through the playoffs, Shanahan will get to work as quickly as possible after his team wraps up the season Sunday against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 51. The 49ers are not expected to waste much time in hiring Shanahan next week.

“You can’t evaluate people by watching ESPN,” Shanahan said. “You have to sit in a room and watch both copies. You got to cut it up and watch certain types of plays, certain gradable plays. It takes a long time. You don’t want to sit and evaluate 30 different guys randomly. You want to dedicate a few days to one guy, really lock in and then come back and watch it again.”

In 2014, Shanahan was new on the job as offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns. He confirmed he had a high grade on Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Instead, the Browns selected Johnny Manziel with the No. 22 overall pick, while the Patriots picked Garoppolo in the second round with the 62nd overall selection.

“Yeah, they had me look at every quarterback and evaluate every quarterback,” Shanahan said. “That’s pretty much how it is everywhere. They ask you to evaluate everyone and you give grades and you tell people who you want and you wait to see what happens.

“I think people heard me, but the results weren’t there. I think there were a lot of people who liked Garoppolo. There were other quarterbacks we liked, too. We put a board together. We rank every one. Then, the people who make the decisions, you have to wait and see what happens. As a coach, it’s like that at a lot of places. You have to deal with what happens.”

Garoppolo could be available in the offseason in a trade with the New England Patriots. At the end of the 2017 season, Garoppolo would be scheduled for unrestricted free agency. Therefore, the Patriots could look to deal Garoppolo this offseason. Shanahan described what he liked about Garoppolo in his evaluations three years ago.

“He was a very good thrower,” Shanahan said. “Tough guy, kept his eyes down the field, could get rid of the ball fast. Really liked the person. Had a chance to go out to dinner with him and stuff. He played at Eastern Illinois, and it was a different type of offense where you can’t always evaluate with how quick they get rid of the ball. But I really thought he was a very intelligent, tough player with a good throwing motion.”

In 2012, Shanahan was part of a Washington organization that drafted Kirk Cousins in the fourth round. Cousins remains unsigned for 2017, but Washington is expected to protect him with the franchise tag for a second consecutive season. Washington could place the exclusive franchise tag on Cousins to ensure he remains with the organization. Otherwise, the 49ers could make a play for him.

“Kirk’s a natural thrower who’s fearless,” Shanahan said. “He lets it rip. Guys who are processing can go fast in the pocket and Kirk’s as good as anybody at that.”

The 49ers own the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. All things being equal – and if the 49ers do not add a veteran prior to then – the quarterback position would top the list.

"Everyone wants a quarterback,” Shanahan said. “You just hope that there is one. You always take the guy who gives you the best chance to win. Usually that’s a quarterback, but it could be a D-lineman. Everybody wants to have a great quarterback right away, but if it’s easy to get one, everybody would have one. So you got to make sure to make smart decisions and do what’s best for the team.”

Shanahan said the first thing he wants to see from a quarterback prospect is the ability to throw the ball naturally. That eliminates a lot of prospects from the beginning, he said.

After that, there are a lot of other factors Shanahan said he considers.

“If you’re born to throw and it’s effortless, you can do it with ease and you don’t have to think about the throwing part because everything else is so hard,” Shanahan said. “And if you have that, you want a guy who’s fearless. If you sit and watch the rush in this league or you’re thinking about getting hit or have any hesitation, you don’t have much of a chance. The game moves too fast and you have to keep your eyes downfield.

“And you got to have a certain amount of intelligence so that you can handle everything. But it’s not just your IQ, it’s being able to handle it under pressure and think fast and react. Once the game starts, your mind has to shut off. It’s got to be a feel and you react, usually based off the preparation you did throughout the week and your natural feel of the game.”

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”