Jalen Hurd missed the entirety of his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers. Several months later, words from analysts and general manager John Lynch have people wondering what the receiver can do in 2020.
The recent conversation between Lynch and NBC Sports’ Peter King on King’s April 30 podcast featured a wide variety of topics, but King’s explanation of what he saw in Hurd in the 2019 offseason turned some heads.
“I walked out of that camp, and we got in the car to go to the next place,” King said, “And the two women I was traveling with said, ‘Well, what was your impression?’ I said, ‘We just saw the 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.’ [Hurd] is going to come out of nowhere. He’s going to be fantastic.”
There’s a legitimate reason why King thought that Jalen Hurd could have been the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019. After all, Hurd was a proven talent at Tennessee and Baylor.
But before Hurd saw the field, he suffered a stress fracture in his back, sidelining the Niners’ third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Nearly a year and a Super Bowl appearance later, the landscape of the San Francisco roster has changed.
An Embarrassment of Riches
To put it simply, the 49ers have a lot of quality options at receiver.
- Deebo Samuel
- Brandon Aiyuk
- Kendrick Bourne
- Trent Taylor
- Dante Pettis
- Travis Benjamin
- Richie James Jr.
- Jauan Jennings
- Shawn Poindexter
- Chris Thompson
- Chris Hinke
And that’s not including tight ends like George Kittle. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will have a plethora of options, no matter who makes the 49ers’ final roster in August. That doesn’t help Hurd’s case for a breakout season, and it also makes Hurd’s path to the final 53-man roster a bit more difficult.
Lynch recently complimented Hurd’s progress so far, but also said that he still needs to prove himself this offseason.
“He’s out, he’s running. He’s doing really well and we’re excited by that. Jalen’s 14 days that we’ve seen him were lights out. The problem is, we’ve only seen him for 14 days. Jalen knows full well that he needs to work his tail off, so that he can get back and be a contributor and try to earn opportunities to be a contributor for our team moving forward. We love his skill set. We love his mindset. Now it’s time to put it all to work.”
While San Francisco has established patience with Hurd, he’s not the sole receiver trying to prove his worth and find success in the space made by the departures of Marquise Goodwin or Emmanuel Sanders.
Trent Taylor is also returning from injury, Dante Pettis was a healthy scratch for the final weeks of the 2019 season, Travis Benjamin was signed to a one-year prove-it deal this spring, and the additions of Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings from this year’s draft, making for an as deep, if not deeper group of receivers in the Bay this season.
But even with the assumption that Hurd is a lock to make the team, it still doesn’t mean that the transitional receiver will see a lot of touches.
Samuel and Aiyuk will be the two starting receivers in San Francisco and one should expect them on the field on nearly every offensive play. The third-starting spot could very well be Hurd’s, but only if he’s able to show Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan that he can provide something valuable and different than the rest of the 49ers receiving group.
Luckily, that’s exactly what Hurd can be. With a large 6-5, 230-pound frame, Hurd is a menace in one-on-one coverage thanks to his pure athletic ability, as seen in the first clip of the video below.
With Deebo already seeing rushing touches and Hurd’s famous reasoning behind transferring to Baylor as a receiver, don’t expect the Niners and Hurd to put his 2800-plus rushing yards in college to work.
Instead, where the 49ers could set up Hurd is through the explosive play of Samuel and Aiyuk.
While defenses attempt to limit the dynamic pair, Hurd should find himself in advantageous positions to physically win catches, as well as open up space for potential yards-after-catch plays.
Boom or Bust?
Hurd is arguably one of the 49ers’ best all-around athletes as an offensive weapon, but, as mentioned with the receiving group itself, the situation Hurd is walking into is much different than the one laid out last year.
With Samuel picked in the round before him, Hurd was thought of a guy that could just have easily become a major playmaker before injury, unfortunately, ruled him out.
Now, with Kittle established as the Niners’ top weapon, Samuel receiving the bulk of extraneous touches and Aiyuk expected to start immediately, it’s not just a question of if Hurd can do it, it’s a question of whether San Francisco already has too much offensive responsibility in place for him to have the chance of a breakout season.
Expect Hurd to get chances. Lynch and the 49ers have invested enough in him to warrant the opportunity. But the reality is that it will be an immensely tall order for Hurd to turn occasional chances into a premier season in the NFL and his first proper season in the league should be focused on getting him into a role, rather than expecting him to be a star.
Evan Reier is a sportswriter covering the San Francisco 49ers for Heavy.com and local sports for the Montana Standard in Butte, MT. Reach out to him on Twitter at @evanreier and follow Heavy on 49ers on Facebook.