Photo credit: 49ers
Another year, another season over for Jalen Hurd before it began. On Sunday, Hurd injured himself on the sideline while rehabbing, and was helped off the field. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday the team is still waiting on MRI results, but the expectation is that he has a torn ACL and his season is over.
“We’ll be surprised if it’s not [a torn ACL],” Shanahan said. “I really felt bad for the guy, but he’ll be back next year.”
With Hurd almost certainly out for the season, the 49ers are now down three receivers, and all before padded practice started. Because neither one of Richie James Jr. or Deebo Samuel’s injuries are season-ending, the team cannot place them on injured reserve, meaning they occupy two roster spots on the 80-man roster. They added Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson this week, and are likely to do the same with Jaron Brown once he passes three COVID-19 tests.
Hurd’s injury is devastating first from a personal perspective in that he worked all of last year to return from a stress reaction in his back, and failed, and had been working this offseason with the 49ers training staff to get healthy. He participated with his teammates in a non-team practice down in Tennessee and in San Jose, where Jimmy Garoppolo threw passes to wide receivers.
There was an abundance of optimism for Hurd, who, in his very limited opportunities last preseason, proved he was an aggressive, willing blocker who had quickness not often found in his size. He provided, in theory, a positional versatility which could wreak havoc on opposing defensive coordinators, who would have almost no tape to prepare with.
But Hurd’s injury in particular provides an opportunity for the 6’3″ Jauan Jennings, who is pretty strictly a slot receiver. He played with Hurd and Emmanuel Moseley back at Tennessee, when Hurd was exclusively a running back, and currently figures to be a red zone, short yardage threat.
“I was so happy that we drafted him, I almost cried,” Moseley said. “Because I know where he came from.”
Jennings was suspended from Tennessee on two separate occasions; the first time, a dismissal by the team in 2017 for an Instagram tirade against the coaching staff (before being reinstated after the hiring of head coach Jeremy Pruitt in 2018) and the second time by the SEC for stepping on the head of an opposing Vanderbilt player who was down on the sidelines.
When the 49ers used their seventh-round pick on Jennings, there was a perception that he would effectively be insurance for Hurd, should he be unable to get healthy. It appears that claim will pay out as Jennings now shoots from a player firmly on the bubble, to one who seems likely to make the roster. Granted this is coming after the first day of padded practice which took place on the far practice field away from reporters, so it’s unclear exactly how he’s progressing thus far.
Still, his tape flashes a unique, almost funky play style defined by tenacity, physicality, shiftiness to create separation and a massive catch radius.
Shanahan said that while there are “a number of guys” who can take the place of Hurd who plays the “F” and “Z” positions, with the 49ers viewing the F as a hybrid slot/backfield role and Z being a flanker (plays off the line, behind the outside split end), but acknowledged that Jennings does measure up similarly.
“I think Jauan is a decent comparison,” Shanahan said. “He is big and he definitely has the mentality.”
The issue with Jennings is simply experience. Every rookie this year is at a substantial disadvantage than rookies of seasons past due to the lack of OTAs (organized team activities) and rookie minicamp. They have to come in without those two experiences in a shortened training camp setting and simultaneously try to learn the offense and tighten up their skillset while competing for a roster spot.
As anyone who has been given golf swing tips knows, sometimes the learning process does not bear fruit quickly. Players are being taught things to adjust their game, which might not result in immediate success, and potentially hurting their chance to make the roster. It’s a difficult situation and those rookies have to hope that coaches see and appreciate their work, even if it results in gradual growth.
“It’s definitely harder for rookies missing all OTAs and all that stuff,” Shanahan said. “They come in and they want to go out there and compete so hard, but they’re spinning a little bit so I feel that with a lot of the rookies. But [Jennings] has got the mindset, he’s got the talent, he’s got the attitude to go out there and do it. The key for him and a number of these other guys in short practices is just how detailed they can get and learning what they’re supposed to do.”
Jennings is the closest thing the 49ers have to a one-for-one replacement for Hurd, and his height, red zone capabilities and the 49ers’ injury-riddled, mostly young receiving group, could give him the requisite edge to win a roster spot.