SANTA CLARA – After facing some midseason criticism for not necessarily living up to the advance billing as the 49ers’ O.W., Kyle Juszczyk finished the season strong and added another huge contribution to the organization in March.
Juszczyk was the 49ers’ only Pro Bowl selection last season. And the coaches voted him as the winner of the Bill Walsh Award, which goes to the player who best represents the standard of professional excellence established by the Hall-of-Fame coach.
The fullback determined the 49ers needed another O.W. – another “offensive weapon,” as general manager John Lynch first labeled Juszczyk – and he scanned the list of available free agents as he tried to figure out how the organization would replace running back Carlos Hyde.
He zeroed in on Jerick McKinnon, who had been used mostly as a third-down back during his four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.
“Once I pretty much figured out that Carlos wasn’t going to be coming back, I knew we were in the market for a running back and Jerick looked exactly like the kind of guy we needed here,” Juszczyk said on The 49ers Insider Podcast.
Juszczyk saw a player, in McKinnon, who could make plays on his own with the ball in his hands, whether he was running or receiving. So Juszczyk sent McKinnon a text, first explaining who he was and why this seemingly random text was not random at all.
It went something like this:
Hey, man, this is Kyle Juszczyk. I’m the 49ers fullback, and I know how free agency goes. I just went through the same thing last year. I think you would fit perfectly here. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me and I’ll answer everything honestly and just give you a feel for what it’s like here.
McKinnon responded and began a dialogue with the man who would become his lead-blocker.
Juszczyk said he reached out to McKinnon on his own – just following a hunch. Then, McKinnon later told him the 49ers, indeed, were interested. And when Juszczyk contacted a member or two of the 49ers’ coaching staff, he was told to keep pushing.
Juszczyk had gone through free agency the previous offseason. He signed a four-year, $21 million contract with the 49ers on the first day of the signing period. The day after he verbally agreed to terms with the 49ers, the New York Jets offered him more money, he said. Still, there were some that questioned the size of the deal. And after a slow statistical start, Juszczyk finished with 33 receptions for 315 yards in 14 games.
McKinnon also drew intense interest from the Jets. He ended up following Juszczyk’s path and signed a four-year, $30 million deal with the 49ers. It's only natural the 49ers and Jets have similar ideals in the running game. Jets offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates and offensive line coach Rick Dennison come from Mike Shanahan’s coaching tree. When Kyle Shanahan landed McKinnon, he got his guy.
“I don’t know if I knew he was going to be the top-paid running back in the market that year, but I figured he’d be a guy that we’d be interested in,” Juszczyk said.
Juszczyk said his interaction with McKinnon during the process only confirmed his belief that he would fit in perfectly with the 49ers.
“Great guy – the dude works his absolute tail off,” Juszczyk said. “I remember in the recruiting process, I texted him, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m in-between workouts right now. Let me hit you up after my second workout.’ Just that, right there, let me know what kind of guy he was.”