C.J. Beathard

49ers' George Kittle using robotic quarterback for offseason workouts

49ers' George Kittle using robotic quarterback for offseason workouts

All-Pro George Kittle knows very well that when your first plan doesn’t work, you pivot, adjust your focus, and find the destination through a different route.

The 49ers tight end, along with most NFL players, has had to find a way to practice during the offseason individually with team facilities being closed. Thankfully for Kittle, Monarc Sport has given him the ability to hone his receiving skills without the need of a quarterback. 

Sawyer Theisen, a longtime friend of the Kittle family and fellow Iowa alum, saw an opportunity over four years ago and set a plan in motion. The end product is the robotic quarterback that Kittle has shown himself practicing with on social media. 

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

The idea of the Seeker was born through former New England Patriots receiver Riley McCarron, back when he was a walk-on wide receiver for the Iowa Hawkeyes. He grew frustrated, unable to get enough reps in practice to fine-tune his skills. 

Theisen did a little research and discovered that the most recent patent for a throwing machine had expired some 50 years prior. 

The Seeker is not your average throwing and kicking machine. Such versatility has enticed several NCAA football programs that already have instituted its use. Oklahoma, LSU, SMU, Virginia and Iowa are among the converts. 

What differentiates the Monarc machine from a traditional JUGS machine is that it can be controlled remotely which allows a player to be able to practice alone. A location tag, worn on the hip of the player allows the machine to know exactly where to send the ball, but those features are just the tip of the iceberg. 

Videos of players working with traditional JUGS machines have been seen all too often. The player stands in a static position, not even looking at the machine, and usually catches the ball effortlessly because it has the exact same trajectory on each rep. The Monarc eliminates that predictability. 

“With our stationary gauntlet feature, that’s the video George posted, you actually have the option to set it on random so every single ball can come to a different spot within your catch radius,” Theisen told NBC Sports Bay Area. 

“From the very top of elite NFL receivers that we’ve worked with, down to high school players,  every single player has dropped the second ball on the stationary gauntlet because they are so used to checking out mentally.”

The Seeker also can help a player work on a particular skillset they are trying to master. Arc, hang time and distance are all part of the programming options for the user as a solo operator. It can help a player practice catching over the shoulder passes while running a variety of routes, high-pointing a ball or even catching a throw at the sidelines. 

“With our machine we have a touch screen on it and you’re shown a full football field,” Theisen said. “For a pass, you set the arc and the body position, and then you just use the joystick to fire.”  

Customizing punts and kicks also are easily facilitated. 

“Let’s say you want a punt to the left hash on the 45, you just literally click with your finger exactly where you want it for a punt or a kick," Theisen said. "You set the hang-time using the hang-time slider. It essentially turns anyone at the helm of the machine into an All-Pro kicker or punter.”

[RELATED: Fred Warner won't forget Joe Staley's 49ers influence any time soon]

The Monarc product can also throw, kick and punt both left and right-handed or footed. Often an NFL team will sign a lefty kicker for game preparation if that’s what they are facing in the upcoming week. Upping reps for returners is readily available with the use of the Seeker. 

Theisen describes the 250-pound throwing unit as easily portable, having driven it across the country for Kittle to test in San Jose. The 49ers tight end liked the concept so much that he invested in the company along with 49ers quarterback C.J. Beathard and New England wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. 

What had looked like a challenging spring season with college facilities shuttered due to the global pandemic, Thiesen and his three co-founders found a way to pivot. Now with a focus on the need of NFL players to get reps in alone during the offseason, interest in their product has increased dramatically. 

Kittle has found his offseason stand-in for Jimmy Garoppolo and just like the quarterback, the machine won't be texting him back either. 

Tracing how Alex Smith trade led to 49ers acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo

Tracing how Alex Smith trade led to 49ers acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo

He wasn't the right selection with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft, but former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith didn't let that define his career.

Seemingly underappreciated at every stop he has made along the way, Smith has generally done the most important thing asked of a QB: Win.

Across 166 career games (161 starts) with the 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington, Smith has posted a 94-66-1 regular-season record. He likely would have more victories added to that total if not for a gruesome leg injury sustained in Week 10 of 2018. Doctors initially feared the leg might need to be amputated altogether, and it has been a long road back to recovery for the former Utah product.

That gruesome injury and the arduous rehabilitation process that followed is documented in ESPN's "Project 11," which airs Friday at 4:30 p.m. PT.

Smith spent the first eight seasons and 80 games of his career with San Francisco. His tenure came to an end, not necessarily due to failures of his own, but more so the emergence of a younger Colin Kaepernick. After some inconsistency at the beginning of the 2012 season, the reigns were handed over to Kaepernick in Week 11, and he literally ran away with the job.

With Kaepernick looking like the dominant QB of the future, the 49ers dealt from a position of strength and traded Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs on March 12, 2013. In a way, that eventually led to the trade for Jimmy Garoppolo.

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

In exchange for Smith, the 49ers received from the Chiefs what turned out to be second-round picks in the 2013 and 2014 NFL Drafts. Just over a year later, San Francisco sent that 2013 second-round pick to the Tennessee Titans for a 2013 second-rounder, 2013 seventh-rounder and 2014 third-round pick. Combined in other trades, those selections turned into Tank Carradine, Corey Lemonier and Chris Borland.

The following offseason, the 49ers traded the 2014 second-rounder they received from the Chiefs and an additional 2014 seventh-round selection to the Denver Broncos for second- and fifth-round picks in 2014 and a fourth-rounder in 2015. San Francisco ultimately then turned those picks into running backs Carlos Hyde and Mike Davis.

Borland retired after one season. Lemonier has been out of the league since 2016. Davis has bounced around four teams, and both Carradine and Hyde currently are unsigned. The misses in the draft, combined with Kaepernick's regression and the efflux of multiple franchise cornerstones, the 49ers went from a perennial NFC power to a bottom-dweller within the span of two seasons. San Francisco went 15-33 from 2014 through 2016, a span in which Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert were behind center.

The 2017 season didn't start off any better. Halfway through, Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard had led the 49ers to a winless 0-8 record. General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan had seen enough. On Oct. 31, 2017, the 49ers traded a 2018 second-round pick to the New England Patriots for Garoppolo. And the rest, as they say, is history.

After taking a couple weeks to familiarize himself with the offense, Garoppolo was thrown in the fire for the final five weeks of the 2017 season, reeling off five wins in a row, including two fourth-quarter comebacks. San Francisco had found its franchise quarterback ... again.

[RELATED: Ryan's second season with Shanahan bodes well for Jimmy G]

Though not nearly as gruesome as Smith's, Garoppolo endured a bad leg injury, tearing his ACL in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Without their franchise QB, the 49ers would go on to finish 2-14. The bright side? That put them into a position to draft NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa.

With Bosa and a fully-healthy Garoppolo, the 49ers were minutes away from winning Super Bowl LIV. Smith played for both of the franchises involved in that game, and he played a role in both making it that far.

Joe Staley played with absurd number of 49ers QBs in great NFL career

Joe Staley played with absurd number of 49ers QBs in great NFL career

Joe Staley called it a career after 13 seasons and 14 quarterbacks with the 49ers.

Yes, you read that correctly.

The All-Decade left tackle saw it all with San Francisco, playing for six different head coaches in two different stadiums. Nothing epitomizes the up-and-down nature of the 49ers this century than the sheer number of QBs he protected. Staley was consistently great, but his quarterbacks were not.

The full list of quarterbacks who played in the same game as Staley isn't a "who's who" as much as it is a "who's that" of 49ers history.

  • Alex Smith
  • Trent Dilfer
  • Chris Weinke
  • Shaun Hill
  • J.T. O'Sullivan
  • David Carr
  • Troy Smith
  • Colin Kaepernick
  • Colt McCoy
  • Blaine Gabbert
  • Brian Hoyer
  • C.J. Beathard
  • Jimmy Garoppolo
  • Nick Mullens

While Carr and McCoy never started and only played in relief, the list includes three "franchise" QBs (Alex Smith, Kaepernick and Garoppolo). The rest took the reigns due to those three's injuries and/or ineffectiveness, acquitting themselves to ... varying degrees as San Francisco's signal-caller.

Staley's career perfectly dovetailed with their search for a star quarterback after passing on Aaron Rodgers in the 2005 NFL Draft. That search, as much as anything, was about finding someone as good as the man tasked with protecting his blind side.

[RELATED: 49ers acquire star tackle Williams as Staley's replacement]

Despite playing with more than a baker's dozen of QBs, Staley thrived with San Francisco. All told, Staley earned six Pro Bowl nods, including five straight from 2011 through 2015. He was an easy choice for the NFL's All-Decade team earlier this month, starring for 49ers teams that were good, bad and everything in between during the 2010s.

What if the 49ers enjoyed a level of success at quarterback approaching Staley's at left tackle? That's a question the Faithful will ask themselves for years to come.

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