Ever since Kyle Shanahan and his fellow coaches arrived in the Bay, versatility has been a frequent part of their vocabulary. This is hardly surprising given the increasingly multiple nature of the NFL today, as players are defined less by the position that they play but by the roles that they are asked to fulfil. As base defenses give way to nickel and dime and snap-by-snap match-ups dictate the personnel on the field, football becomes increasingly like a game of chess in which you can replace your knight with a bishop at will or vice versa, simply to secure the best chance of the check mate at that moment.
Already, we have had a glimpse at the varied roles players will be asked to operate in as well as the current and eminently changeable rotations that are in place.
First however, to the “V” word, one that has been particularly prevalent on defense. On offense, versatility is most notably desirable for running backs and tight ends, the two positions that are most prominent in the transformation of NFL offenses into the chameleon-like entities of today. If a personnel grouping is equally effective on passing and running plays, the defense is placed at a significant disadvantage. The versatility of running backs and tight ends are arguably the most significant part of this. Offenses need to be unpredictable and Kyle Shanahan is one of the best and most mercurial offensive minds in the NFL. The presence of Kyle Juszczyk, blurring the distinction between tight end and running back will only increase the unpredictability this offense and his versatility will be critical for the 49ers going forward.
On defense however, the simplicity of the 49ers scheme ensures that players can be versatile across different positions. First round pick Solomon Thomas is expected to regularly line up at at least two spots as a rookie, at strong side end and at three technique (before even considering the fact he could play essentially anywhere along the defensive line). Arik Armstead, a man tabbed for the LEO role, where he who has reportedly been extremely disruptive, has also been given time inside in obvious passing situations. Eli Harold and Ahmad Brooks play both SAM linebacker and as nickel edge rushers whilst the stack linebackers are expected to be able to play MIKE and WILL linebacker with a seamless transition between the two.
Perhaps most significantly, the versatility of the safeties, the defense’s answer to running backs and tight ends, is beginning to be unlocked. Jaquiski Tartt has played both strong and free safety, showcasing a fairly unique versatility for safeties who play in this scheme. If Tartt can produce at a high level at both positions, there should be little doubt that he would enter discussions as one of the best and most versatile safeties in the NFL, such are the differences between the strong and free safety roles in this scheme. Based on his first two years of tape however, success at strong safety would appear far more likely, but he has flashed ability when deployed deeper and certainly has the requisite athleticism to succeed as a deep centre fielder. We will see how he is used when the season rolls around.
Furthermore, Lorenzo Jerome has played nickel corner as well as deep centre field, indicating the range of playmaking attributes that the coaching staff believe that he has. These attributes have reared their head frequently this offseason, as Jerome has consistently delivered turnovers. If he continues his strong performances, Jerome will enter into conversations as a potential starter. The versatility of Jerome and Tartt only serves to compliment that of Jimmie Ward, who has been forced to sit out of the first few sessions of camp with a hamstring problem.
Ward is capable of playing either safety role, as well as inside or outside corner. If either (or indeed both of) Tartt or Jerome can cover the deep centre field role, it will allow the 49ers to use Ward wherever they feel they need him most. We could see Rashard Robinson taking the field with four “safeties” this season, all playing slightly different roles within a scheme that enables them to play a range of positions across the defensive backfield.
To their immense credit, the coaches themselves are proving to be versatile and willing to experiment with rotations in order to utilise the best combinations for specific situations. It remains to be seen how they will use the defensive backs, as Will Redmond and K’waun Williams have also been earning positive reviews whilst the men competing to play opposite Rashard Robinson have been discussed in a lukewarm fashion at best.
We have however heard that Ray-Ray Armstrong and Reuben Foster have appeared together as nickel linebackers, as the coaches experiment with a pair of linebackers who are theoretically better in coverage than Navorro Bowman and Malcolm Smith. Smith’s coverage problems have been well publicised and we could see him as a base package linebacker exclusively whilst Reuben Foster acclimatises to the NFL. This would make sense, as one of Foster’s few “weaknesses” in college was being engulfed by linemen on some running plays as well as occasionally getting out of his gap on run defense. We don’t know if Bowman’s coverage ability will take a hit as a result of his achilles injury, but it is certainly a positive that the 49ers are looking at possible solutions should such a problem arise.
The coaching staff are also showing a willingness to experiment with their rotations at other positions. Much has been made of the rotations on the defensive line, but two key areas of intrigue are at the running back and tight end positions. Whilst rookie tight end George Kittle appears to have one foot in the door as a starter at the tight end spot (due to his versatility), his fellow rookies Joe Williams and Matt Breida find themselves behind a slimline Carlos Hyde and Shanahan favourite Tim Hightower at running back. These four players do appear the front runners to make the roster, and their slightly different strengths and weaknesses will be deployed by the coaching staff to provide the 49ers with the best chance of success on a snap-by-snap basis.
The tight end rotation will undoubtedly be fascinating, not least because of the Juszczyk effect and the resultant impact on which players the 49ers retain and use in certain packages. Undoubtedly, the solid blocking abilities of free agent Logan Paulsen and holdover Garrett Celek may stand them in good stead. As players who are primarily blockers, their receiving prowess essentially needs to be limited to catching balls in space created on misdirection and delays on play action. Defenses are unlikely to pay enormous attention to them and that will arguably be their primary strength in this offense. Conversely, the greater athleticism and receiving talents of Vance McDonald, Cole Hikutini and Blake Bell might be favoured for exactly those reasons. The next few weeks will be incredibly interesting to see how the 49ers deploy their tight ends.
As this season goes on, it will be incredibly interesting to see how both the players and the coaches adapt to life together. The 49ers’ development going forward will be an organic and ever-changing process. One thing that will not change however, is the importance of versatility for all.