The 49ers checked another box off their free agency to-do list Sunday when they agreed to a five-year, $27 million contract with fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
The contract makes Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in the NFL, which tops the four-year, $21 million deal he signed with the 49ers in 2017. Juszczyk gets more years and a higher AAV with this contract. It's a move that confused some, seeing as the fullback is a largely extinct position in today's NFL.
But those questioning whether or not the 49ers should have opened the checkbook to retain Juszczyk don't know how important the fullback is to coach Kyle Shanahan's offense.
As ESPN's Nick Wagoner pointed out, since 2017 when Juszczyk joined the 49ers, San Francisco ranks second in the NFL in yards per play (5.99), fourth in yards per rush (4.49) and third in yards per pass (8.65) when two running backs are on the field. When only one running back is on the field, the 49ers rank 20th, 23rd and 19th, respectively, in those categories. Juszczyk has missed seven games during that span, so it's not all based on his presence, but it's clear that he plays an integral role not only in the 49ers' rushing attack but in the offensive execution as a whole.
The 49ers' offense has undoubtedly been more efficient when Juszczyk is on the field than when he's not. With Juszczyk on the field, the 49ers are plus-two in Expected Points Added per 100 plays and have an EPA of minus-eight per 100 plays when he's off the field. The 49ers also have a 15-point per 100 play difference on run plays with the fullback on the field.
While many see the fullback as a relic of a bygone era of the NFL, the 49ers and Shanahan don't just view Juszczyk as a lead blocker who lines up with the sole intent of paving the way for the running back. For Shanahan, Juszczyk is a multi-dimensional threat whose ability to be a receiver out of the backfield often makes defenders a step slower when defending the 49ers.
Shanahan views having a "fullback" like Juszczyk, one who is technically treated as a No. 2 tight end, as a versatile weapon who forces defenses to face something they are less familiar with because they don't see fullbacks that often.
“There are always cycles. … That’s why to me, there’s no absolutes," Shanahan told The MMQB's Albert Breer about his philosophy in 2018. "That’s why I use 21 [personnel] probably more than anyone in the NFL, we have a fullback in there, not just because that’s our offense, it’s because I believe that’s an advantage. People don’t play base defense very much, because the majority of the league doesn’t have a fullback. And so you get people on the field they’re not as used to practicing with.
"You know their menu’s smaller, and it’s, alright, I know I’m attacking these five things instead of these 25 things. And you can see it better as a play-caller, as a quarterback. But also, it can be an advantage for the defense. If there’s only two receivers out, that’s a lot easier to defend than having to deal with a slot receiver. That’s why it’s important to me to have a fullback like Juice where you can do two-back, but you also can be in one-back and do one-back type stuff."
The annual salary of $5.4 million isn't nothing, but it's also not a number that is going to hamstring the 49ers in their ability to rebuild a Super Bowl roster. The 49ers elected to backload Juszczyk's contract, with a cap hit of $2.3 million in 2021 and $3 million in 2022. It jumps to $6.6 million in 2023 and $7.6 million in each of the final two seasons. The 49ers also owe Juszczyk a $2.155 million option bonus by April 1 of next year, but it will be treated as a prorated signing bonus, which will help keep the 2021 cap hit low. That, obviously, was a key point of emphasis for the 49ers this offseason as they likely will have to give Trent Williams a massive contract to keep him in the Bay Area, and would also like to re-sign nickelback K'Waun Williams.
It's easy to look at Juszczyk's contract and position and be perplexed by the 49ers' decision to commit a decent chunk of money to a dying position in an offseason with a shrinking cap. But to do so is to not fully understand the value Juszczyk brings to the 49ers and his impact on their success.
He was an offseason priority for a reason, coming in right behind re-signing Trent Williams on the 49ers' list of things to accomplish this offseason. His presence makes their running game more potent, gives them an extra wrinkle in the passing game and allows Shanahan to have a leg up in the cat-and-mouse game with defenses each week.
Juszczyk is more than a fullback. In Shanahan's system, he should be labeled as an offensive Swiss Army Knife whose presence has a massive impact on how effective San Francisco's offense is.
He's someone the 49ers need in their huddle on Sundays and someone who would be difficult to replace in the draft or free agency given his unique blend of skills. So save the scoffing and fake outrage at the contract numbers for a position you think has gone the way of the dinosaurs.
Juszczyk is much more than the "FB" next to his name in the media guide, and the 49ers needed to bring him back. Given the myriad of ways he impacts the offense, it's safe to say he is well worth the price.