Story updated after press conference on Saturday 4/27.
When Baylor wide receiver Jalen Hurd comes to Santa Clara for his introduction to San Francisco media, it won’t be his first trip to the Bay Area, or even his second.
When looking to transfer from Tennessee, the San Francisco 49ers’ third-round draft choice was considering following former Volunteers teammate Vic Wharton to Cal, and even made an official visit to Berkeley during then-new head coach Justin Wilcox’s first recruiting weekend on the job.
Then a running back, Hurd was looking for a place where he could flex his receiving talents, and the former five-star back eventually landed in Waco, Texas, at Baylor. It was there that the versatile Hurd developed into a sharp enough weapon in the passing game for the 49ers to take the 6-foot-4, 229-pounder 67th overall on the second day of the NFL Draft. The one constant between Hurd and 5-foot-11 second-round pick Deebo Samuel? Physicality. They both visited Santa Clara at the same time during the run-up to the draft.
“I could definitely see that they needed some value in the receiver position,” Hurd said of the 49ers. “I definitely knew that I might be a possibility and other people were, as well, but Deebo is a great athlete, so it’s a future teammate, so it’s cool to be a part of it.”
Hurd rushed 637 times over the course of his career for 2,844 yards, including 1,285 as a sophomore at Tennessee. Despite his obvioustalent running the ball, though, he wanted to be a receiver and showcase his versatility. Taking fewer hits was also a consideration. He caught 136 balls for 1,438 yards between the Vols and Bears, with a high of 946 yards in 2018.
With his history running the ball for the Vols from 2014-16, Hurd has plus vision once he has the ball in his hands, and he’s a perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which values versatility from its offensive weapons. He’s run the ball, caught it out of the backfield, and lined up outside and in the slot. His best attribute? Naturally, running after the catch.
“Honestly, first since I saw that they had interest, I wanted to be a 49er, since I was around them and their staff, so to be drafted by them is pretty surreal,” Hurd said via teleconference on Friday. “Shanahan is obviously an offensive genius, so being in his offense, being a part of that organization, they are a very historic and great organization in the past, so just to be a part of that and Shanahan’s offense, it’s going to be something special.”
Hurd is a natural hands catcher with a large catch radius — something that will come in handy in the red zone — who is a bit raw in the route running department, but does well off of free releases and when he’s able to press up on his stems uncontested.
“I say just the details in route running,” Hurd said, when asked what he needs to work on. “I think my hands, I had a few drops last season but not too many. Hands are pretty much there. Always can get better, of course, but I think my biggest thing is route running and just the details in the route in the 49ers offense.”
His size and strength (23 reps in the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine) are major assets to a receiving corps that lacks both, and he adds some toughness and nastiness, as well. Shanahan even mentioned the possibility of Hurd functioning as an H-back or tight end-type receiver at some point down the road, likening him to Philadelphia Eagles tight end Trey Burton.
“Definitely. I see him, he’s got that type of body,” Shanahan said. “I think he can do a little bit more things. I don’t know if we would have used him as a running back and stuff, also, but yeah, I think he’s a very similar build.”
He has a good, natural feel for goving over the top of coverage, but he doesn’t have the speed to be a true down-field threat. That said, he’s a long strider who can get down the field well enough for his size, though he’s not explosive off the line. He thrives in space, and it just so happens that Shanahan is known for scheming receivers into open space. George Kittle was the beneficiary of that this past season, and Hurd’s athleticism is toing to enable him to take advantage of those opportunities. He discussed those opportunities on his visit.
“It’s just me being a versatile matchmaker,” he said. “Just wherever I fit honestly in that situation, so where I can be a mismatch on somebody, that’s probably where I’ll be at.”
Overall, Hurd provides a ton of upside, has unexpected slipperyness (especially side-to-side) for his size, but is a bit of a project from a technical standpoint. Having Wes Welker on staff to refine his route running should pay dividends, and his ability to take on linebackers and safeties should get him on the field.
“He’s one of the more intriguing guys in the whole draft,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said of Hurd. “He goes to Baylor, plays some receiver, and he had some drops, but you can still see, he’s very sudden. Especially getting in and out of his break, he’s very, very explosive. … Just get the ball in his hands, because with the ball in his hands, he’s outstanding. He’s great after the catch, and then you see those running back skills kind of take over.”