When it was announced the 49ers were signing Jordan Reed for the 2020 season, providing the oft-injured tight end an avenue to continue what's been an ultra-dynamic yet terribly unlucky and unhealthy career, I struggled with it. Reed's peak play in Washington, however brief, was elite, and he became an instant favorite of mine with his acrobatics and nigh-unguardable basketball style. But, with eight diagnosed concussions in the NFL, not to mention his adjacent injuries, it's difficult not to be overly concerned for his wellbeing, especially with CTE being such a prominent issue among players today.
Reed is aware of his situation, and told us Sunday he considered retiring after the 2019 season. Though he was driven to return by the opportunity to play in big games.
But, the fact remains, not only has Reed not started more than eight games in a season in his entire career, but he's not even finished a 16-game season yet either. Now he's 30 years old, and one of the more frail players in the league. There's admittedly an unease when he trots out from the huddle to the LOS, and cringe when he catches the ball.
So, now that the 49ers have the Pro Bowler in-house, and he's looking spry — not to mention he has a pre-existing relationship with Kyle Shanahan that likely secures him a spot — what can the 49ers do to optimize his role in San Francisco, and do right by him from a medical standpoint?
How can they get the most out of Reed, and how can they perhaps deliver Reed what he seeks: the opportunity to finally finish a season and play in big games.
After rolling the tape back on his seven seasons in the league, one pattern became clear: Jordan Reed is a red-zone monster.
Not including pre- and postseason, Reed has 24 career receiving touchdowns, and 22 have come in the red zone (inside the 20). I’ve charted the rest here, including how many times he scored, from what range, where he was lined up when he released from the LOS, how many times he was in motion, and routes run. This sample, which Kyle Shanahan himself is part of, is the blueprint to help the 49ers get the best-concentrated sample out of what may be a situational player.
Red Zone with Kyle Shanahan
The only year Reed and Shanahan were together was 2013, and that was Reed's rookie season. With Shanahan as the play-caller, the third-round pick out of Florida found the end zone three times, all of which came in the red zone, twice inside the 5. They were all must-haves, too, when they went to the then-rookie (two third downs and a fourth down; and either trailing or tied).
(1) Week 2 — 4th and 4 at GB 3, Robert Griffin crossing route for 3 yards. Reed makes a nice adjustment to a ball thrown behind him.
(2) Week 7 — 3rd and 3 at CHI 3, Robert Griffin fade ball for 3 yards. Interestingly, Shanahan drew this one up and this is the one play where Reed is all alone prior to the snap, leaving the defense to scramble to match up.
(3) Week 10 — 3rd and 11 at MIN 11, Robert Griffin pass middle for 11 yards. Shanahan motions Reed across the formation and gets him wide open on this stop-and-go post that freezes the LB.
While this was a snapshot of his rookie year with one of the best play-callers in the NFL, Reed continued to show after Shanahan left that he does his best work in tight spaces. From his jab step on slants to using his body to shield defenders from the ball on fades, the TE demonstrated a mastery of ways to create safe throws for quarterbacks that often converted goal situations into touchdowns.
Reed has a great feel for space, he boxes out defenders like they're not even there, and he's an aggressive and confident hands catcher that attacks the ball at its highest point. Exceptional hand-eye coordination, timing, and body control guide him as a jump-ball receiver. From RGIII to Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy, and Alex Smith, there wasn't a Washington QB that couldn't loft Reed a prayer in the red zone with the chance of it resulting in six points.
Reed seems most comfortable turning in toward the middle of the field. He had a lot of success on in-breaking routes — slants, deep ins, crossers — against starting cornerbacks, linebackers, and safeties. He locates soft spots and communicates well with his quarterback. Notice the eye contact with his QB, letting him know he's open and ready for the pass. Reed gets free on these in-breaking routes with the jab step before the cut and by using his outside arm to create space between himself and the defender. Now in San Francisco as a TE2, he can be a middle-of-the-field mismatch, really challenging opponent's defensive depth.
Given where he is at this stage of his career, it'll be curious to see if his playstyle is affected, but prior to 2020, Reed would fight like a maniac when he smelt in the end zone. If he caught the ball within the opponent's 5-yard line, he's shown the will and physical ability to power his way past the pylons. There were a couple of examples of Reed in Washington showing reckless abandon for his body, charging through groups of defenders.
Despite having the No. 2 scoring offense, the 49ers were 20th in the NFL in 2019 in red-zone efficiency (55.56%), per Team Rankings.
If the 49ers plan to limit Reed's snaps this season to reduce the probability for injury, they might want to place an emphasis on him being a red-zone weapon. Go to 22 personnel after crossing midfield and get him the majority of his snaps there. The 49ers offense is built around the run game and that's what should carry it the length of the field. Charlie Woerner is also the team's extra blocking tight end, whom the team is developing as a receiver, and in between the 20s would be the best place for it.
And, the beauty of Reed in San Francisco is the presence of #85. Already having George Kittle provides the 49ers the flexibility Washington never had because Reed was their TE1. Reed's usage can be scaled back and very deliberate. And, back in Shanahan's hands, the offensive wizard could very well examine the 2010-12 New England Patriots, designing high-percentage scores off two-plus tight end sets.
He won't need to be on the field a lot, blocking, making contact, running routes where he's not targeted, and risking injury.
Moreover, the 49ers have also been without a contested-catch receiver. It's not the strength of any one receiver on the roster, and with Jalen Hurd out for the season, and Jauan Jennings not seizing the moment this offseason, Reed might be the answer there. We also know quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is becoming more comfortable in this offense, particularly in the red zone. It could be a match made in heaven.
If the 49ers leverage a concentrated version of Reed was in Washington, namely the red-zone scorer, they will not only be able to preserve and protect the tight end, but unleash a rested version in opponent territory and potentially jump from the No. 2 scoring offense to No. 1. This is how this deal can become a win-win.
Graphic by Dillon Hiser