Kyle Shanahan’s offense never was at full strength in his first three seasons as 49ers head coach.
Even when Shanahan’s offense ranked second in points scored and fourth in total yards last season, it was accomplished without three components who were expected to be major factors on offense.
The 49ers had situational roles envisioned for running back Jerick McKinnon, and receivers Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd. But injuries kept each of those players off the field for the entire 2019 season.
Those players could give Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo a lot more options, especially on third downs and in the team’s two-minute offense. An offense that needs only a tweak could get a major boost if McKinnon, Taylor and Hurd are healthy.
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RB Jerick McKinnon
He missed his first season with the 49ers when he sustained a torn ACL one week before the start of the season. Last year, his season ended before it started when the surgery from his graft did not fill in properly.
McKinnon was an elite route-runner before all of his knee issues. Shanahan made it a priority to sign him as a free agent in 2018 because he envisioned flooding the middle of the field with McKinnon, tight end George Kittle, a slot receiver and fullback Kyle Juszczyk. Shanahan felt those players would cause all kinds of matchup problems.
McKinnon looks good in his workouts, and the 49ers are cautiously optimistic he will finally provide what they were expecting when they signed him two years ago.
Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman and Matt Breida were good backs. But none had the route-running skills of McKinnon.
The 49ers’ best route-runner out of the backfield last season was Jeff Wilson. His ability to juke a defender in man coverage was the reason Shanahan called upon Wilson to run the route that won the game against the Arizona Cardinals. Late in the first half of the Super Bowl, Wilson went in for the same reason and caught a 20-yard pass.
Mostert is working hard on his route-running, and he likely will make improvements in that area. McKinnon is not likely to be considered for every-down duties. But he will have opportunities to make a considerable impact on third downs.
WR Trent Taylor
Taylor had an impressive rookie season. He and Kittle tied for third on the team with 43 receptions apiece. But Taylor had a difficult time bouncing back in 2018 after offseason back surgery. Then, he had one setback after another following surgery to repair a Jones fracture in his foot last summer.
Taylor hopes to be ready for when the 49ers get on the field to begin preparations for the 2020 season. Taylor’s best attribute is his ability to get open quickly with Shanahan's favorite route. Depending on the matchup, Garoppolo can lock onto Taylor and rely on him to get open in order to convert third downs on what Shanahan calls "choice routes."
Emmanuel Sanders was the 49ers’ main slot receiver after coming to the team in a midseason trade. But the slot was never a big part of the 49ers’ offense. The 49ers had big hopes for Taylor last season. Nobody on the team would benefit as much from Wes Welker’s coaching as him.
WR Jalen Hurd
Shanahan likes some players for specific roles. But with Hurd, Shanahan sees a player who can be used in a number of different ways. Hurd can line up outside. He can line up in the slot, at tight end or in the backfield.
Hurd’s versatility would be especially useful to the 49ers on their two-minute drill when the opposing defense is unable to make substitutions after every play. Hurd could be moved around the formation to create exploit certain matchups Shanahan wishes to exploit.
General manager John Lynch said last month that Hurd had been cleared for on-field work after he was forced to sit out his rookie season due to a stress fracture in his back. Hurd is not likely to post huge numbers, but he has the potential to play a vital role in key situations.