Kaden Smith ready to learn from, and eventually compete with George Kittle

Kaden Smith ready to learn from, and eventually compete with George Kittle

Kaden Smith’s stock as a draft prospect dropped at the NFL Scouting Combine when he ran the second-slowest 40 time among all tight ends.

The 49ers ended his fall on the third day of the NFL draft when they selected Smith with the first of their three sixth-round draft picks.

Shortly thereafter, 49ers tight end George Kittle, who set the NFL single-season record for tight ends last season with 1,377 receiving yards, reached out to welcome Smith to the organization.

“Right after I got drafted, he texted me: ‘Good luck. He’s happy I’m on the team,’” Smith said of Kittle. “He’s pumped up.”

Smith is plenty excited, too.

Smith played college football just up the road at Stanford. After having contact with the 49ers just once during the pre-draft process and not attending the team’s local pro day in Santa Clara, the 49ers came out of nowhere to select him with the No. 176 overall pick.

The 49ers were determined to add depth behind Kittle, and Smith ended up being the guy they tabbed to give coach Kyle Shanahan more options for two-tight end formations.

“I saw what he did last year, and I’m really excited to come in and learn under him, eventually fight for his spot,” Smith said of Kittle. “I’m not really sure what my role is, yet. I’m just going to go play football, enjoy it, have fun and keep learning.”

Smith (6-foot-5, 248 pounds) declared for the draft after a two-year career at Stanford in which he caught 70 passes for 1,049 yards and seven touchdowns. He missed the final three games of last season with a foot injury and ran a disappointing time of 4.92 in the 40-yard dash.

“I ran at the combine and ended up not running at pro day,” Smith said. “I was just ready to get back to football and figured a team would draft me, based on my skills and I was ready to go.”

Shanahan said Smith’s speed – or lack thereof – is not much of a concern for him. General manager John Lynch, who played his college football at Stanford, watched Smith routinely come up with big catches as part of Stanford's NFL-style offense.

“When your speed isn't great, I'm not going to send him on a bunch of speed routes,” Shanahan said. “But there’s a lot of good tight ends who run around there. Some guys who got drafted early aren't that much faster than him. Speed's not the issue depending on how you want to use him. He's effective in the pass game and we think he could be a good blocker for us, too.”

Said Smith, “I get open. At Stanford through nine games, I had 47 catches, so separation isn’t really a problem for me. And blocking, too. Understanding staying low and going against some bigger guys and doing well against them.”

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Seven-year veteran Garrett Celek was the 49ers’ top backup tight end last season. But his production dropped, as he caught just five passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns in 15 games.

Ross Dwelley, who appeared in 11 games last season as an undrafted rookie, and Tyree Mayfield, an undrafted rookie from Wyoming, are the only other tight ends on the 49ers’ 90-man roster.

49ers' Richard Sherman defends Darius Slay during Lions trade rumors

49ers' Richard Sherman defends Darius Slay during Lions trade rumors

Richard Sherman is back on Twitter, and the 49ers star is here to defend a fellow Pro Bowl cornerback. 

Sherman, who has been an advocate for fellow players, is all for Slay defending himself amid rumors the Detroit Lions are looking to trade him

Slay responded to a tweet that showed he has led the NFL in passes defensed since 2017 with 56. Slay reminded everyone that he actual has led the league in that category since 2014, his second professional season. 

Since 2014, Slay has recorded at least two interceptions and 13 passes defensed every season. He led the NFL in interceptions (8) and passes defensed (26) in the 2017 season.

Sherman was ripped by many in the media when he and his wife negotiated his own contract with the 49ers. The former Seattle Seahawk signed a three-year. $39 million contract in March 2018, four months after rupturing his Achilles tendon.

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But Sherman has earned the last laugh. He received a $2 million contract bonus this past season by being named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press. Sherman now has earned all $4 million in incentives in his contract. He already triggered the $1 million bonus for being named to the Pro Bowl and $1 million for playing 90 percent of the snaps this season. 

Even if he never becomes teammates with Slay, Sherman rightfully will take the player's side when it comes to making a living for yourself.

49ers roster analysis: Running backs combine to make formidable group

49ers roster analysis: Running backs combine to make formidable group

This is the second installment of a 10-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020, and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

Tuesday, a look at the 49ers’ running backs.

Under contract (signed through)

-FB Kyle Juszczyk (2020)
-Tevin Coleman (2020)
-Raheem Mostert (2021)
-Jerick McKinnon (2021)

Juszczyk’s contract includes a club option for $5.55 million, which does not seem to be in question at all for what he gives the team.

Coleman is scheduled to earn $4.9 million in salary and bonuses.

McKinnon, who did not appear in a game in his first two seasons with the 49ers due to a knee injury, will certainly not be back on his scheduled pay of $6.8 million. But the 49ers might be inclined to see if they can work out a low-level one-year deal to keep him around.

Expiring contracts

-Matt Breida (RFA)
-Jeff Wilson (ERFA)

Breida’s salary is scheduled to jump from $645,000 to $2.144 million if the 49ers give him the lowest free-agent tender. That is a decision that could go either way.

Breida can negotiate with other teams beginning March 16. If the 49ers give him the low-level tender, the club would not receive any compensation if another team signs him to an offer sheet and the 49ers decline to match.

As an exclusive-rights free agent, Wilson has no outside negotiating power. The 49ers would retain his rights with a qualifying offer.

What needs to happen

First things first, the 49ers have to figure out what they want to do with the running backs who finished last season with the club.

Juszczyk is a no-brainer. The 49ers could also look to extend him this offseason to lower his cap number for 2020 while also making sure they keep him under club control for a couple more seasons.

Coleman is scheduled to make $4.9 million, which seems reasonable for a player who was the primary starter and came through big in the playoff opener. Breida’s jump in salary never seemed to be much in question until the end of the season when he rarely got on the field.

McKinnon simply cannot come back on his scheduled salary. But he said he wants to return and he’s fully aware the only way that happens if he agrees to a dramatic pay reduction. If McKinnon returns to his pre-injury form, he would give the 49ers the kind of route-runner out of the backfield that they do not currently have on their roster.

Wilson is the best route-runner out of the backfield, so he could get an opportunity to see more action as a third-down back. Or the 49ers could keep their eye on happenings around the league to see if Atlanta parts ways with Devonte Freeman in a cost-cutting move.

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The 49ers found something that worked with Mostert and Coleman. They also learned over the past three seasons that it makes sense to have three or four running backs who are capable of sharing the load.

A year ago, Mostert had his spot on the 49ers’ roster wrapped up because of his ability on special teams. Now, he enters the offseason as a dynamic presence in the backfield. Regardless of the rest of the depth chart at running back, Mostert should get plenty of carries in 2020.

The 49ers had to be pleased with the production from the running backs. Mostert, Breida and Coleman each rushed for 500-plus yards. Wilson was very good when he was given an opportunity, too.

The area where the running backs must improve is in the passing game. Coach Kyle Shanahan wants more options on third downs to take advantage of areas of the defense he feels he can exploit.

Whether it’s bringing back McKinnon, developing one of the other backs or going outside to bring in a proven pass-catcher, the 49ers might not take that next step on offense until they put a great route-runner in their backfield on third downs.