Why 49ers' George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk are focus of Saints' Sean Payton

Why 49ers' George Kittle, Kyle Juszczyk are focus of Saints' Sean Payton

BRADENTON, Fla — Saints coach Sean Payton believes his defense has their work cut out in order to stop the 49ers' high-powered run game, and that means focusing on tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk.  

Payton is quite aware that the 49ers rank second in the league in both rushing yards per game (207.8) and total rushing yards (1,776) through Week 13. It doesn’t seem to matter whether Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida or Raheem Mostert is carrying the ball as each has had their turn as the hot hand. Against the Ravens, Mostert carried the ball 19 times for 146 yards and a touchdown. 

“With what Kyle Shanahan is doing, and his commitment to not only the running game, but the two-back running game,” Payton said. “You really have a tight and and a fullback that fit that exceptionally well.” 

Payton was extremely complementary of Kittle, who has been effective as a run blocker while also being a very reliable target for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle only had two receptions for 17 yards in Baltimore but what he did to open up lanes for the running game was apparent. 

“Anytime you’re watching that team play, you’re seeing him on sting routes,” Payton said. “You’re seeing him on his run after the catch. His ability to separate and also block certainly put him at the elite level in this league right now. And he’s fun to watch.” 

Payton remains equally focused on Juszczyk because of how Shanahan can use him in a variety of ways. The fullback’s stats in receptions and rushing yards do not reflect how effective he is on the field. 

“He’s exceptionally smart,” Payton said. “He’s extremely productive. Whatever he’s doing, he does it well. He’s athletic, he can catch. Clearly he’s been the top, or if not, the top fullback in our league because he does so many things well. 

“He can play off the ball, he can play in the backfield, he’s got fantastic football instincts. He’s fantastic as a fullback. When you watch their tape and you understand what they are doing in the run game and you understand some of the subtle adjustments that Kyle deals with when a front moves, or support or a gap change, he never surprises you and always seems to be doing the right thing.”

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The Saints could focus on stopping the run as Seattle and Arizona did, but they then run the risk of falling victim to Jimmy Garoppolo and the passing game. Payton says his team must remain disciplined. 

“Their ability to run the football, their ability to score, and then conversely on defense with what they are doing, it’s super impressive.”

How Jerick McKinnon impacts 49ers' negotiations with Raheem Mostert

How Jerick McKinnon impacts 49ers' negotiations with Raheem Mostert

49ers running back Raheem Mostert wants a raise or to be traded. The problem for him is, he doesn't really have any leverage. Regardless of what he deserves, that's just the reality of the situation.

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan favors a running back-by-committee approach. He will be able to employ that, regardless of whether or not Mostert wants to be a part of it. The 49ers have ample depth at the position, even after trading Matt Breida earlier in the offseason.

Tevin Coleman isn't going anywhere. Cutting him would result in a $2 million dead cap hit, and San Francisco can't afford to waste cap space at the moment.

Jeff Wilson scored five touchdowns on 30 total touches last season. He seemed to make a play whenever given an opportunity, and the coaching staff has plenty of faith in him.

The 49ers also signed undrafted free agents JaMycal Hasty and Salvon Ahmed, who originally might have been ticketed for the practice squad, but there's a reason why San Francisco pursued them. Shanahan has a long track record of creating productive rushers out of thin air, and Mostert's performance last season only backs that up.

But there's one major wild card in San Francisco's backfield: Jerick McKinnon.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Having signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the 49ers on the opening day of free agency in 2018, McKinnon was hand-picked by Shanahan to transform San Francisco's offense. Though never a bell cow, he offered the speed and matchup versatility that Shanahan covets. McKinnon rushed for 570 yards and hauled in 51 receptions for another 421 yards in his final season before joining the 49ers, and in Shanahan's system, the possibilities were endless.

And then, all dreams were dashed.

McKinnon tore his ACL one week before the start of the 2018 season, and then sat out the entirety of the 2019 campaign after requiring additional surgery. After not stepping foot on the field in a single game over his first two seasons with the franchise, McKinnon agreed to a pay reduction for the 2020 season that will see him make $910,000 in base salary, a sign of his commitment to the team. He was scheduled to make $6.8 million in 2020 prior to the restructuring.

Given his injury history, the 49ers would be wise to be cautious with their dependence on him. That said, he has had nearly a full year to recover from the most recent surgery, and last month his trainer said McKinnon is "in the best shape of his life."

He had been working with Rischad "Footwork King" Whitfield, and on Wednesday, McKinnon posted more workout videos to his Instagram Story.

The 49ers are optimistic they'll finally be able to unleash McKinnon this coming season, with Mostert recently going so far as to predict that McKinnon will "surprise people." If he's healthy, there's no doubt Shanahan will be itching to involve him in the offense, creating yet another potential matchup nightmare for the opposing defense. Plenty can happen between now and then, but San Francisco has to be feeling good about the progress "Jet" has put on tape.

[RELATED: How Mostert's 49ers trade demand shows price of success]

If the 49ers go into the season feeling like they can count on McKinnon, Mostert inevitably will get fewer touches. There are only so many to go around, especially with receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd liable to take a few of their own. Mostert rightfully feels like he deserves a significant raise, but that's under the assumption he is going to be the lead back in Shanahan's system.

That might still be the case, regardless of McKinnon's status. But the 49ers haven't forgotten about McKinnon, and until they do, the odds are against Mostert getting what he wants.

What Raheem Mostert's agent says client wants in 49ers trade demand

What Raheem Mostert's agent says client wants in 49ers trade demand

49ers running back Raheem Mostert's trade demand carries another motive, according to his agent.

Within an hour of announcing Mostert's trade demand Wednesday, Brett Tessler told NFL Media's Ian Rapoport that Mostert "simply" wants his salary "in line" with teammate Tevin Coleman's.

Coleman's $4.55 million base salary is nearly $2 million more than Mostert's $2.575 million, according to Over the Cap. Mostert's salary is not guaranteed, whereas $2 million of Coleman's became guaranteed on April 1. Coleman can earn nearly $4.9 million after workout and roster bonuses, and Mostert can make up to $2.825 million if he hits all his roster bonuses.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Mostert (151) and Coleman (158) had nearly the same number of total touches during the regular season, with each player rushing an identical 137 times. But Mostert led the team in regular-season rushing yards (772) and rushing touchdowns (eight), becoming the 49ers' top back down the stretch and having over twice as many carries (117) and touches (126) as Coleman (55; 58) from Week 13 onward.

Prior to that stretch, Mostert had 113 rushing attempts and 127 touches in the preceding 31 games. Coleman, meanwhile, signed with the 49ers as a free agent in 2019 after averaging 165.5 touches per season in four years with the Atlanta Falcons.

[RELATED: How Mostert's 49ers trade demand shows price of success]

Whether the 49ers meet either of Mostert's demands remains to be seen.

He still has two years left on his contract (including 2020), and the 49ers currently have the NFL's eighth-highest salary-cap number on running backs. San Francisco has just over $12 million in salary-cap space, but that number conceivably could diminish if star tight end George Kittle's contract extension includes a reworked 2020 cap number.

Kittle's set to count just over $2.2 million against the cap this season. Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, who has the NFL's highest cap number at the position, counts just shy of $12.5 million against the cap.