SANTA CLARA -- Kyle Juszczyk, the highest-paid fullback in the NFL, returns for his fifth season as one of the key figures of the 49ers’ running game.
But even with a large measure of continuity, Juszczyk knows the offense’s identity for the 2021 season will evolve over the course of the season as coach Kyle Shanahan and coordinator Mike McDaniel determine the best way to attack.
“Each year there seems to be a different theme,” Juszczyk said upon reporting for training camp last week.
“In ’19, Kyle talked about it, it was the most gap scheme he ran in his entire career. We didn’t do as much in 2020. We seem to find different things each year that become a little more popular. We run all of it, but it’s what becomes our bread and butter that year.”
Shanahan’s offense has every style of run call in the playbook. The offense has generally experienced success with outside-zone running plays, where offensive linemen focus their blocks on defenders who enter a specific area. Gap blocking is generally more power-oriented to create running lanes.
The 49ers have gotten bigger along their offensive line with veteran center Alex Mack and the potential for rookie Aaron Banks to take over at right guard. Right tackle Mike McGlinchey said he added 25 pounds in the offseason.
“I have noticed a difference in the offensive line — the different size,” Juszczyk said. “When you get in the huddle, it’s, ‘Wow,’ we have quite the group in front of us.”
Juszczyk is a five-time Pro Bowl performer whose versatility has proven invaluable for Shanahan’s offense. The club re-signed him to a five-year, $27 million contract in the offseason.
Even as he enters his ninth season in the NFL, Juszczyk said he continues to look for ways to refine and improve his game.
In his first four seasons with the 49ers, Juszczyk caught 102 passes for 1,080 yards. He is coming off a career-high 17 rushing attempts last season. In all, he touched the ball 36 times and produced 22 first downs and six touchdowns in 2020.
But Juszczyk earns his money as a blocker, and that’s where he has placed his focus at the opening of training camp.
“This year I wanted to continue to focus on blocking in space, which I’ve felt has always been a strength of mine,” he said. “But there were some plays last year where I felt it could’ve been a little bit better.”
Under Shanahan and McDaniel, the 49ers are known for a variety of innovative run concepts that are made possible only because of Juszczyk’s unique ability to give the appearance of one type of run play before abruptly changing course to lead the ballcarrier in a different direction.
McDaniel has spearheaded the ground game as run game coordinator. Now, he has taken on the title of offensive coordinator with passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur moving on to the New York Jets with new head coach Robert Saleh.
“I feel we are already one of the most creative run teams in the NFL, but I don’t think that can stop us from being even more creative,” Juszczyk said.