An up-and-coming master of positioning his pieces in the chess match that is football, first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan provides the 49ers a lot luxuries when it comes to adding new players to the roster, particularly in the draft. These are players with no pro identities that are eager to be coached up and contribute.
The standout benefit of Shanahan, much like schemers Bill Belichick and Sean Payton, is that players that might otherwise fail or be underutilized in other systems can thrive under his offensive direction, coaching, scheme and on-field placement.
Digging deeper, the other great aspect of this is that Shanahan can take a tweener type player and draw up mismatches. There’s a few gems like that in this class, with Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey being the best of the bunch. But his mid first-round grade puts him in a place where it’s unlikely the 49ere will acquire him.
Put your worries aside, though, there’s someone else “a little more available” that would make for an exceptional toy for Shanahan . . .
TE/WR, Ole Miss
Evan Engram, at 6-3, 234 pounds, is somewhere between an effective slot receiver and a tight end. He can also line up at H-back. His versatility alone has to put him on Shanahan’s radar. I can already picture the coach twiddling his fingers in the war room like Montgomery Burns on Day 2.
The ex-Rebel has the potential to be that problematic for NFL defenses.
Engram, at his core, is that pesky pass-catcher that always seems to find soft spots in the defense without racing to them – and also consistently grabs the attention of his quarterback. He does that by being a smart football player. Being an unsuspecting tweener with multiple gears doesn’t hurt, either. You’ll see he uses his change in speed and fake blocking assignments to trick defenders to get to open space, pointing to his intellect.
Engram also brings a combination of three defining traits to the table, ones that clock him pretty well. Simply put, he’s an excellent route runner, a pure hands catcher and he tracks the ball very well in stride. The first two alone make him a solid player, but the third skill is an added bonus you’ll notice about Engram. Chad Kelly found him in stride a lot and he never slowed up or missed a beat.
That leads us to his next strength.
His run-after-catch ability is impressive; he consistently gets at least a few extra yards because of how smooth he brings the ball in and how quick he’s able to turn up field. But he can make chunk plays in the air, too. Engram caught all four targets that traveled 30 yards or further, according to Pro Football Focus. That cherry on top is part of what makes him an early-round prospect.
And, more specifically, he’s a killer in the seam:
The question for Engram is when he gets to the NFL, where will he play?
On a lot of medieval-thinking teams, he may be utilized strictly as a slot receiver or joker TE, which wouldn’t be necessarily bad. But, as mentioned before, with a mind like Shanahan, he could have no designated position, which I believe would be the way to maximize the talent Engram possesses.
And on paper, it makes sense to keep him listed as a tight end or TE/WR to continue to create those mismatches against linebackers and safeties. An NFL corner, particularly today’s athletic nickels, will be better equipped to run with him. Though, size wise, he can beat them to the ball, either leaping, boxing out or both. Engram also moved around a lot in college, so he’s accustomed to it – he should continue on that path.
That’s his fingerprint on the game.
Overall, he fits the prototype of Jordan Reed and Mychal Rivera, two athletic tight ends that rarely drop the ball.
Engram would be a nice Day 2 pick for the 49ers, especially if they don’t land one of the top three wideouts in Clemson’s Mike Williams, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis and Washington’s John Ross. It gives them great value in the later rounds and provides a starting-caliber X-factor.
As a rookie he’d push Logan Paulsen, provide an outlet option for Brian Hoyer, and settle in as a building block for the future. Paulsen, and even newly-acquired combo back/receiver Kyle Juszczyk, make me believe Engram is indeed Shanahan's type.
When with the Atlanta Falcons, the then-offensive coordinator also used multiple tight ends, from Levine Toilolo to Jacob Tamme to Austin Hooper. The three combined for 54 catches for 745 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, and did it with a fairly equal share across the board.
The 49ers aren't done upgrading WR or TE, so adding Engram would be a strong step forward at both positions.
Media courtesy Draft Breakdown, Austin McAfee/AP