Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Film room: Stanford tight end Kaden Smith and scheme versatility

Jun 28, 2019 at 10:36 AM

Today we round the 49ers draft prospects with a closer look at rookie tight end Kaden Smith.

Could the 49ers have possibly added another late draft steal when they drafted tight end Kaden Smith out of Stanford with their 6th round, 176th overall pick? Based on his college tape alone, one would be hard pressed to not come to that conclusion. Of course, projecting how a given player will do is not an exact science and for the most part is just made up. Outside a handful of really good players, no one really knows.

With Smith however, it's easy to see why head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch fell in love with the prospect: scheme versatility. I wrote earlier about how receiver Jalen Hurd gives the 49ers options in a "positionless" offense with his ability to line up and play from virtually any offensive skill position. Adding Smith to the mix broadens those offensive possibilities.

In Stanford's run heavy, 13 personnel offense (one running back, three tight ends), Smith lined up everywhere and caught passes from the slot, out wide, and as an inline tight end. He was a two year starter at Stanford in his sophomore and junior years. He elected to forgo his senior year and enter the draft. Had he played one more year, he probably would've been the top tight end in the class next year. This year he was competing for that honor with the tight ends like TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant of Iowa, and Irv Smith Jr. of Alabama among others.

To go along with a deep tight end class, Smith was lacking in production, particularly in the red zone, and because of this, received near-unanimous fourth round grades. He was also competing for production on a team that featured running back Bryce Love and receiver JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

Perhaps another reason why Smith didn't stand out in this draft is his Combine scores weren't very impressive compared to the rest of the class. However, one thing in particular that stands out is his low percentile arm length and mid range wing span. On tape, this isn't a hindrance at all as he tends to catch everything that enters the air space around him, as we shall see in a bit.

Where he wins

Run blocking

Run blocking is becoming secondary in a league that values passing over anything else. But having stout run blockers can make an offense generally more consistent and help it stay on schedule in a given drive. Shanahan added another run blocker who can win key blocks out on the edge in a primarily outside zone-dominant running game.

Stanford is primarily a gap/man blocking scheme team in the running game, meaning it runs more power, counter, trap, etc., than zone. But occasionally it runs the zone scheme, both inside and outside, to mix things up. It just isn't very good at it.

On the outside zone here, Smith is lined up to the left as an inline tight end. The Cardinal are running the play to the strength of their formation to the left. Outside zone blocking is characterized by a more lateral movement of the offensive line instead of a vertical down field movement such as on the inside zone.

At the snap, Smith engages the defensive end with the left tackle on a scoop block before disengaging for the second level. Blockers on a double team must ensure their defender is controlled before disengaging and leaving the other blocker 1-on-1. In this case, Smith helps control USC defensive end Christian Rector (No. 89) before disengaging and reaching the defender on the edge. Smith shows some great fluidity here to reach the safety coming down hill but the offensive line has already lost its battle.

Smith shows more of his athleticism in the run game on this toss sweep play by getting out on the edge and locking up his defender long enough to spring running back Bryce Love for a 50+ yard gain deep from their own territory.

Smith and the left tackle are the sweep blockers who get out in space to block any defenders who scrape over the top after seeing the down blocks. Smith approaches the defender, lowers his center of gravity, and turns his hips to square up the defender as he breaks down to engage. As he drives through the defender, he engages inside the defender's reach on his chest plate and wins control long enough to spring Love for 50 yards.

Smith also has a mean streak in him akin to George Kittle. Stanford is running power here to the right so Smith is responsible for the kick-out block on the edge defender. As he engages with the defender, he keeps his feet moving and stays locked with fluid hips and feet. As the runner approaches the hole, Smith wins at the point of attack by pancaking the defender to the ground. Unfortunately, the Oregon defense clogged the running lane and forced the runner to bounce back inside.

As a receiving tight end

While Smith's athleticism in blocking the run make him an instant upgrade over tight end Garrett Celek, where he really shows his versatility is as a pass catcher in the passing game. On several occasions, he lined up in the back field, split out in the slot, and inline to the formation and caught passes from everywhere he lined up.

His best trait in the passing game is his ability to catch literally everything that enters his air space. His primary route was down the hash or seam where he could go up in traffic and fight for the pass, although he is capable of also running the Y-cross and out routes.

As an inline tight end here against USC, Smith is running straight down the hash on a seam route. He gets behind the defense as the pass is thrown but it's not a great throw. He makes a great adjustment, controlled and balanced, to go up and get the pass.

Here on the Y-cross, he fights through contact and gets a slight push-off to get open. He uses his big frame to shield the pass from the defender, catches and secures it, and gets up field to gain more yards. One advantage he has is his bigger frame allows him to fight through contact but also shows that he is adept at using the correct technique to not draw a penalty for pass interference.

And he catches literally everything.

The athleticism and ability he has as a receiving tight end allowed Stanford to use him in ways not traditionally seen and we can expect Shanahan to do the same.

Smith is lined up in a wing position here to conceal his initial post-snap movement. At the snap, he takes a lateral step out as he would in pass protection as the quarterback executes the play fake. He then gets vertical up the seam against the Washington State quarters coverage defense, clued in on the first vertical route. The linebacker bites on the play fake and Smith gets behind and is wide open down the seam for the catch.

Smith also lined up a fair amount as a slot receiver too in certain personnel groupings, certainly another aspect Shanahan is likely to consider. As a slot receiver, Smith had 27 receptions (ranked #1 in the NCAA per Pro Football Focus, and had 323 receiving yards (ranked #2 by PFF in the NCAA).

In the middle slot against USC in the Pac-12 championship, Smith is running a deep post route. USC walks the safety out over him and he stays pretty well covered until about the 5 yard line when Smith uses a subtle push-off to get separation. As the ball is in the air, he makes a nice adjustment to haul in the pass for a touchdown. He plucks it out of the air at its highest point and secures it going to the ground.

Perhaps his greatest asset is usage as a slot receiver and it's easy to see why he'd thrive in Shanahan's offense.

Another undervalued trait that shows up is his subtle ability to make adjustments on the fly to route to get a few extra yards.

Smith is the inside slot in the trips formation to the right. He's running a basic stick route a bit deeper than normal. On a stick route, the receiver or tight end drives down field vertically, plants his foot in the ground at a certain distance, and turns around to look for the pass if in zone coverage. Against man coverage, he should keep running. Smith runs his route to a depth of 10 yards.

Smith drives vertically down the middle of the field and gets the defender to engage him first. He uses his forearm to fight through contact, plants and turns for the pass. As he catches the pass, he sees the defenders in his periphery to his left, feels imminent contact, so he quickly adjusts and turns inside away from the defenders and gets up field for more yards. Having the vision on the fly to recognize the pursuit as he secures and catches the pass will make him an even greater asset in the passing game.

Where he needs to improve

Lingering questions still remain about Smith's overall skill set. While he's great in run blocking out on the edge, he struggles inside against bigger defenders and has a tendency to remain a bit stiff in his blocking technique, suggesting he may need to add some strength in the coming years.

Another area of concern, though I wouldn't be too concerned with it, is his red zone usage. Stanford has a variety of weapons inside the 20 so Smith's usage was limited by the prospects around him. He still had two touchdowns in the red zone:


The arrival of Kaden Smith in San Francisco suggests that Shanahan and Lynch might be ready to move on from tight end Garrett Celek, who has not cleared the NFL's concussion protocol since sustaining a concussion in a week 16 game last season against the Bears, and who also just had surgery earlier this month. He was not a participant in OTAs or mini camp and will not be cleared to practice until sometime during training camp later this summer. The odds are not looking good for him to maintain his backup spot to Kittle.

Smith is that insurance and provides an immediate upgrade to the position, gives Shanahan yet another versatile weapon he can insert into his fluid personnel groupings, and suggests the 49ers may be trying to go bigger in their interior offensive skill positions in the middle of the field. Either way, it's becoming increasingly clearer what Shanahan values in his offense at least in the near term: players who bring that versatility to any position on the offense.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • Bobby W
    This clown doesnt know what hes talking about, as usual. Smith would not be drafted in the first round next year, or be the 'top rated' TE. Hes way too slow, with short stubby arms. And nobody even comments on this guys articles anymore because hes a jerk. Lol
    Jul 1, 2019 at 7:04 PM
    Response: Sir, this is a Wendy's.
  • Mike k
    The reason there was a Celek time was Shanahan's scheme. Bret brought courage but became a penalty liability when injured. No upside here
    Jul 1, 2019 at 8:49 AM

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