The San Francisco 49ers didn’t have to go far for their first of four sixth-round picks on the final day of the 2019 NFL Draft. They just went down the road.
In picking Stanford tight end Kaden Smith No. 176 overall, San Francisco adds an intriguing piece to the tight end corps for training camp, behind Pro Bowler George Kittle. It’s the first time since 2017 that the 49ers have picked a Cardinal (Solomon Thomas, No. 3 overall), the third time in the last four years (Joshua Garnett, No. 28 overall in 2016) and the first Stanford tight end they’ve picked since taking Greg Clark No. 77 overall in 1997.
“I didn’t get a chance to watch a lot of games, [but] I did see Kittle’s highlights, and I’m excited to learn a lot from him,” Smith said via teleconference.
Smith didn’t have much interaction with general manager John Lynch leading up to the selection, but Lynch certainly knew Smith: He attended Stanford games this fall to watch his son, Jake. Smith was invited to the 49ers local pro day, but did not attend, preferring to return to Texas to see his family. He did, however, have other workouts with San Francisco.
“I watch a lot of Stanford football for some reason, and the one thing that’s always struck me with Kaden, he makes big plays in big moments,” Lynch said. “A lot of contested catches. Someone is all over him, and he’s got an ability. I think he’s got a big catch radius, and the nice thing about Stanford football is that they’re playing traditional football. They’re in-line. He’s up on the line of scrimmage having to block people, and so I think he had done some of the things he’ll do here, and we studied him hard as the process continued and felt comfortable in the sixth round to add Kaden and are excited for it.”
Graded out at a 75.3 by Pro Football Focus, Smith is the No. 21-ranked tight end in college football, and the No. 6 tight end available in the Draft, according to CBS Sports. A former four-star recruit, Smith led the Pac-12 in receiving yards for the first nine games of the season, and was at one point considered a to-50 pick. Then came the NFL Combine. He finished in the bottom three among tight ends in four events (with a 4.92-second 40-yard dash, 15 bench press reps, a 4.47-second 20-yard shuttle and 108-inch broad jump), and plummeted down draft boards.
“There’s a reason these guys go later,” Lynch said. “Kaden felt like he played faster than what he ran, and sometimes guys just have a bad day when they’re clocking their time. In our eyes, it was faster than the time that he clocked, and we look at everything. But, most of all we look at the film.”
San Francisco picked Smith as the 12th tight end in the draft.
“I’ve watched my film, and understanding even watching my 40 and the way it felt, it’s messing up those first 10 yards,” Smith said.
“When your speed isn’t great, I’m not going to send him on a bunch of speed routes,” Shanahan said. “But, there’s a lot of good tight ends who run around there. Some guys who got drafted early aren’t that much faster than him. Speeds not the issue depending on how you want to use him. He’s effective in the pass game and we think he could be a good blocker for us, too. Hopefully, he’ll put some pressure on Kittle here.”
Smith, out of Flower Mound, Texas, hauled in 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns as a junior, and during his career with the Cardinal, had 70 catches for 1,049 yards and seven scores.
A John Mackey Award finalist, Smith had three games of eight or more receptions and 100 or more yards this season. The rest of the Power 5 tight ends in the nation combined for just four such games. He became the first tight end to accomplish that combination three times in a season since Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro in 2013, with quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb.
An intriguing fact about Smith: He’s the former world record holder for most one-handed football catches in one minute.