Behind the premier selection of the future franchise quarterback at third overall, the biggest takeaway from the 49ers draft choices was head coach Kyle Shanahan’s willingness to change and adapt his philosophy in the hunt for success.
49ers draft analysis 2021
We all have preconceived ideas of what a ‘Shanahan offence’ is whenever it’s mentioned. These ideas usually consist of an accurate pocket passer, a pass-heavy scheme and a zone-based run game based around lightweight mobile linemen and speedy running backs.
However, in the first three picks of the draft, Kyle Shanahan has shown he is willing to zig when the rest of the NFL is zagging.
Round One, Pick Three: Trey Lance, QB – North Dakota State
I broke down the 49ers blockbuster pick of Trey Lance in detail here. But the cliff notes version is that despite the expectation that Kyle Shanahan was selecting refined pocket passer Mac Jones out of Alabama, the head coach went for the complete opposite in picking the raw and explosive Trey Lance.
This pick demonstrates how Shanahan recognises the evolution within the NFL at the quarterback position. Shanahan has realised that you need an explosive athlete who can prosper out of structure to combat elite defences. Moreover, Lance’s athleticism will be incredibly useful in the run game. Even if Lance doesn’t start a game this season for the Niners, expect Shanahan to utilise the quarterback’s legs in the red zone with zone reads, inverted veers and shovels.
As well as being an exciting selection, the pick of Lance was just the first indication that Kyle Shanahan was ready to do the unexpected and keep his opponents, and the media, guessing.
Round 2, Pick 48: Aaron Banks, G – Notre Dame
With their second pick in the draft, Shanahan selected a mountain of a man – Aaron Banks out of Notre Dame. This selection is noteworthy because Banks is a 325lb guard known for demolishing defenders in the run game.
Traditionally, the guards Shanahan has employed along the 49ers offensive line have been lighter guys who are swift to reach that second level. But in Banks, the 49ers have a guard whose physique resembles that of gentle giant Larry Allen (this is in no way me predicting Banks to be the next Larry Allen!)
With all this talk about run blocking, Banks is also a stud in the passing game. In close to 443 passing snaps, Banks allowed only two sacks and 19 total pressures at Notre Dame. And after 2020, which saw the 49ers offensive line struggle in the passing game leading to the injury of Jimmy Garoppolo, Shanahan is also determined to protect Trey.
Round 3, Pick 88: Trey Sermon, HB – Ohio State
The third pick, and a final indication that Kyle Shanahan’s offensive philosophy is malleable, is running back Trey Sermon out of Ohio State.
In analytical circles, dominated by arbitrary grade databanks such as Pro Football Focus, trading up for a running back is a sin. However, I’m willing to give one of the best offensive coaches of all time the benefit of the doubt here.
During his four year collegiate career, three years at Oklahoma and one year at Ohio State, Sermon notched up 2946 rushing yards, 26 touchdowns and 6.5 yards per attempt. Sermon’s most impressive performance came against Northwestern where the running back exploded for 331 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns on 29 attempts.
Sermon is expected to become the bell cow for the 49ers offence with a skillset based around power rather than speed. A steady, consistent, tough runner is a dire need for the 49ers backfield since last season injuries constantly plagued the 49ers running backs – a group largely made up of lighter, speedier guys.
As NFL defences gear up to defend the pass and the lightning-fast athletes that populate the receiver positions across the league, Kyle Shanahan has prioritised success in the run game. With the first three picks of the draft, Shanahan selected a quarterback who can truck linebackers and force the defence to play 11-on-11, a 325lb guard and a tough running half-back.
The ideological battle between prioritising the passing game or the run game is misguided. It doesn’t matter what your offence does, as long as it’s effective. And after the 49ers saw their season’s derailed three of the last four years by poor quarterback play, Kyle Shanahan has turned to the run game to guarantee some consistency in his offence, as well as taking some of the pressure off the quarterback – whoever that may be.