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GamePlan: How the Homegrown 49ers Were Assembled

More than the other conference finalists, San Francisco’s roster was built from within. Plus, executives’ takes on this weekend’s matchups, what to know on the GM/coaching hires and more.

Before the Super Bowl two years ago, 49ers scouts and coaches had “Mobile-to-Miami” T-shirts printed up—a slogan coined at a dinner at the previous January’s Senior Bowl in Alabama. San Francisco’s staff was coaching in that game, an assignment that routinely goes to the league’s highest-drafting (and, by record, worst) teams. So given where they were, making it to South Florida 12 months later, for a very different assignment, on the other end of the spectrum, would be remarkable.

Once it actually happened? For the guys who were on hand, it was worth commemorating.

But something else happened at that Senior Bowl, too. That week didn’t just pave the way for Mobile-to-Miami. It also cleared a path from Alabama to Los Angeles. To Los Angeles for Sunday’s NFC title game. And maybe back to Los Angeles for Super Bowl LVI.

It was back there, in Alabama, in January 2019, where Niners special teams coach Richard Hightower rode the early shuttle, traveling by van, every day from the Senior Bowl hotel to Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The ride was primarily for guys set to participate in kicking-game work before practice. Kickers. Punters. Long snappers. And lower-level draft picks and prospective undrafted free agents who’d need to excel in that area to make the league.

So those guys were in that van with Hightower. Them, and a South Carolina receiver who was a lock to go inside the top 50 picks or so, who was on time for the shuttle every day. He’d been a great returner as a Gamecock but didn’t really need to prove it to anyone on the Niners’ staff, or any of the other teams there.

Later in the week, Hightower asked him why he was on those early shuttles.

“Man, I just like the ball in my hands,” Deebo Samuel said, flashing his trademark smile.

That moment wasn’t the only memorable one the Niners staff had that week with Samuel, who San Francisco would eventually draft at No. 36. The offensive coaches loved how he worked on his route running with them. They were impressed with how he saw the game for a young guy. They also saw his playing strength first-hand, something they wanted to prioritize in their receivers going into Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch’s third year in charge.

But the moment did encapsulate how the team build in San Francisco has happened.

It was one in a series that showed Samuel was the sort of football-obsessed player they were looking for. It also showed his desire to fill every role he possibly could for whatever team he wound up going to. And it did take a while for all of that to sort itself out—he was more of a gadget weapon for the 2019 49ers team that made it to Miami.

Two years later, that picture for San Francisco is coming to completion, with Samuel as one of the most important players on another championship-contending team. So for him, it’s been Mobile-to-Los Angeles, and maybe twice. For the Niners, it has been, too.

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Three games left, and we’ve got a stocked GamePlan for you. Inside this week’s column …

• We’ve got specific matchups and elements for you to drill down on for Sunday.

• We’re bringing a few things to follow on the coach/GM hiring front.

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• And we’ve got (slightly above-average) gambling advice, plus more on Dan Quinn.

But we’re starting with our annual championship-weekend tradition.


Every year, during this particular juncture in the NFL calendar, we take a step back and look at how the conference finalists were assembled. This, so we’re clear, is a look at the 53-man roster for each of the final four as they stand now—which means it’s not including guys who are on injured reserve or the practice squad.

The idea is to examine how the team-builders in each spot operate, and there’s no question that in recent years, we’ve seen more teams move away from the heavy draft-and-develop model, and more to a blending of homegrown talent and outside acquisitions.

The best illustration of that is that just five years ago, the Packers brought a roster into this round of the playoffs that had a staggering 44 homegrown players on its championship-week 53. Last year, the Packers again topped the list with 36.

This year? No one had more than the 33 that both the Niners and Rams are bringing in.

Here’s the breakdown.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Homegrown on the 53: 28 (24 drafted/4 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 17.
Trades/waivers on the 53: 8.
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Joe Burrow No. 1 in 2020.
Last five first-round picks: WR Ja’Marr Chase (No. 5, 2021), Burrow, OT Jonah Williams (No. 11, 2021), C Billy Price (No. 21, 2018), WR John Ross (No. 9, 2017).
Top five cap figures: CB Trae Waynes $15.80 million, DT D.J. Reader $13.56 million, DE Trey Hendrickson $12.48 million, WR Tyler Boyd $9.84 million, Burrow $8.23 million.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Homegrown on the 53: 30 (21 drafted/9 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 18.
Trades/waivers on the 53: 5.
Quarterback acquired: Drafted Patrick Mahomes No. 10 in 2017.
Last five first-round picks: RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire (No. 32, 2020), Mahomes, CB Marcus Peters (No. 18, 2015), DE Dee Ford (No. 23, 2014), LT Eric Fisher (No. 1, 2013).
Top five cap figures: DE Frank Clark $25.80 million, S Tyrann Mathieu $19.73 million, WR Tyreek Hill $15.85 million, LB Anthony Hitchens $10.64 million, DT Chris Jones $8.54 million.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

Homegrown on the 53: 33 (24 drafted/9 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 10.
Trades/waivers on the 53: 10.
Quarterback acquired: Acquired Matthew Stafford from the Lions for a 2021 third-round pick, 2022 first-round pick, 2023 first-round pick and QB Jared Goff.
Last five first-round picks: QB Jared Goff (No. 1, 2016); RB Todd Gurley (No. 10, 2015); OT Greg Robinson (No. 2, 2014); DT Aaron Donald (No. 13, 2014); WR Tavon Austin/LB Alec Ogletree (No. 8/No. 30, 2013).
Top five cap figures: Stafford $20.00 million, Donald $14.39 million, CB Jalen Ramsey $9.70 million, TE Tyler Higbee $5.83 million, OT Andrew Whitworth $5.67 million.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Homegrown on the 53: 33 (25 drafted/8 college free agents).
Outside free agents on the 53: 15.
Trades/waivers on the 53: 5.
Quarterback acquired: Acquired Jimmy Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2018 second-round pick.
Last five first-round picks: QB Trey Lance (No. 3, 2021); DT Javon Kinlaw (No. 14, 2020); WR Brandon Aiyuk (No. 25, 2020); DE Nick Bosa (No. 2, 2019); OT Mike McGlinchey (No. 9, 2018).
Top five cap figures: Garoppolo $26.40 million, DE Arik Armstead $12.46 million, Bosa $9.23 million, OT Trent Williams $8.19 million, G Laken Tomlinson $6.59 million.

What you’ll find with each team: core players that came aboard from elsewhere. The Chiefs have Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones and Frank Clark anchoring their defense, and Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown leading a rebuilt offensive line. The Bengals’ defense is built around guys coming in from the outside, like Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, Vonn Bell and Mike Hilton, to blend with Jessie Bates III and Sam Hubbard. The Rams, most notably, have taken massive swings on stars like Matthew Stafford, Jalen Ramsey and Von Miller.

The Niners have, to be sure, done some of that, too. Their quarterback came via trade, as did vital pieces on the offensive line in Trent Williams and Laken Tomlinson.

But more than any of the others, the team’s foundation came from within. Samuel’s one example. And sure, there are high picks in there with Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. But there are also finds like George Kittle and Fred Warner, who’ve become franchise players.

If you track their stories, the story of how the Niners were put together follows.


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At that 2019 Senior Bowl, the Niners, coaching the South team, had their eyes on an Arkansas linebacker on the North team, and got to him during crossover interviews. They talked to him about an injury he had and took that information with them to Indy for the combine, where the linebacker would run a disappointing 4.73 in the 40-yard dash.

And they also had this: Through his connections at Arkansas, national scout Justin Chabot got reliable information that the player actually clocked the fastest GPS time recorded on the team all year, hitting a blazing 22 mph on the field.

The Niners took Dre Greenlaw in the fifth round, and he’s a starting linebacker, a good enough one to give the team the flexibility to trade Kwon Alexander last year.

Then there’s the story of George Kittle from two years before. The Niners were looking for a later-round quarterback in Shanahan and Lynch’s first year, and that led them to study Iowa’s C.J. Beathard hard. They wound up taking him in the third round, and he’d be a backup for them for four years. But in studying Beathard and the run-heavy Hawkeye offense, a guy wearing 46 kept catching their eye.

They saw how hard he played. They saw an unbelievable ability to uncoil. And then Kittle ran in the 4.5s in Indy and, well, the wheels were in motion.

Now here’s the reality: If they thought Kittle would wind up being the player he is today, then there’s no chance San Francisco waits until the fifth round to draft him. No way the Niners would’ve risked losing him. But what finding him, and Greenlaw, and identifying Samuel in a crowded receiver group does reveal are two key elements of what Shanahan and Lynch have put together.

The first is an all-in approach to player acquisition. Shanahan swings a big stick in personnel, and he expects his coaches to be top-shelf evaluators, too. That, in turn, gives Lynch and assistant G.M. Adam Peters’s staff a clear vision of what to look for in each position, a vision that’s constantly being refined (Samuel is an example of the team working to find stronger receivers, while Robert Saleh and now DeMeco Ryans have come off the Seattle model in what they look for at corner).

And getting there took a personnel staff that has experienced directors in Ran Carthon and Ethan Waugh, and rising talents like college scouting director Tariq Ahmad, willing to show some humility. The previous model, under Trent Baalke, was very scout-driven. That wasn’t going to be the case with Shanahan in charge, and so the scouts had to work with the coaches to create a singular approach.

That, of course, doesn’t guarantee anything, which brings us to the second piece.

The Niners’ draft record under Lynch has its mistakes. Neither of the team’s two first-round picks from his first draft (Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster) are still around. Mike McGlinchey, the team’s 2018 first-round pick, has had an up-and-down career. What’s been important there, though, is that the Niners have been honest with themselves, and are willing to let go of mistakes, while also not predetermining outcomes for the guys like Kittle, Greenlaw or promising DT D.J. Jones.

The first element gives the team a better chance of hitting on down-the-line picks, which can make up for earlier-round mistakes, while the second element gives those down-the-line picks the chance to show what they’ve got.

And now, more so than in 2019, there are a bunch of stars who’ve grown into leaders, who came up in the program and, as such, have become sort of evangelists for it, something that can be harder to create with players from the outside.


There was a point this season when the Niners had lost four straight. They were 2–4. They were 3–5. And really, it was at that point, on a Monday night in November against the same Rams team they’ll face Sunday, that San Francisco found its stride.

But no one snapped their fingers and made that happen. And what really helped along the way was having guys like Samuel and Bosa and Armstead and Kittle, who believed all along that it’d eventually click—and weren’t surprised in the least when it did. Those guys knew, because everyone had to lean on a foundation those players helped to build.

“It just showed the determination, the trust that we have in each other as a whole, as a group, as a team,” Samuel told me after the Niners beat the Packers. “Just putting all the pieces together, knowing it didn’t start off well but just coming together as a team and just hitting the ground running, we’re just showing everybody what we’re capable of.”

Samuel himself is living proof that it didn’t happen overnight.

Which, in the end, is why what they’ve built won’t go away that quickly, either.


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FIVE-STAR MATCHUPS

Since we’re down to two games, we’ll do this a little differently this week and dive into the individual matchups in the championship games. And we’ll do it with takes on the matchups from a few different executives. Enjoy …

AFC Exec 1: “In the K.C. game, I think the pass rush is the critical element for the Chiefs to win. I like that matchup for the Chiefs—[Chris] Jones, [Frank] Clark and [Melvin] Ingram have the ability to really disrupt the pocket vs. the Cincinnati line.”

AFC Exec 2: “The obvious one to watch is Chris Jones vs. Hakeem Adenji.”

AFC Exec 3: “Cincy has the firepower to stick with K.C. They can score with them. The key is to be controlled while doing it. You don’t want it to turn into a track meet. But Cincinnati can have controlled aggression on offense, attacking but not being in a hurry. As long as the Bengals can maintain control of the tempo of the game and not turn it into a backyard-flag-football game, they will be in it to the end.”

NFC Exec 1: “It’s the Chiefs’ pressure package vs. the Cincinnati line. Then, how do the Chiefs handle [Ja’Marr] Chase? And can Cincinnati create turnovers and get a couple stops?”

NFC Exec 2: “Both [Cincinnati and Kansas City] offenses are explosive. It’s going to come down to who blinks first, and which defense responds by making the big play that flips the game.”

AFC Exec 1: “Can the San Francisco offense win on first down? Drive starters will be important for them—staying ahead of chains, allowing them to stay balanced and control the game. S.F. will be in trouble if they have a lot of second-and-12s and third-and-10s.”

AFC Exec 2: “The 49ers’ special teams were good last week—but it hasn’t been a strength for them this year. And the Rams have been solid there.”

AFC Exec 3: “To beat the Rams, you have to dominate their line and be able to pressure with four. The Rams are not great up front, and the 49ers’ rush has to dominate and get Stafford off the spot with four rushers. If they can get to Stafford early, he will press and give them turnover opportunities.”

NFC Exec 1: “The Rams’ OL vs. the 49ers’ front seven—that’s been the determining factor in their past games. And how the Rams handle Deebo [Samuel], he’s been more of a matchup problem down the stretch. And Stafford vs. Garoppolo.”


FOUR THINGS TO FOLLOW

The NFL’s effort to improve diversity across its rank is working—just not where people are paying the most attention (yet). Yes, things are still bleak on the head-coaching side. With Matt Eberflus (Chicago) and Nathaniel Hackett (Denver) in place, there are now 26 head coaches in place, and just three coaches of color (Mike Tomlin, Ron Rivera, Robert Saleh). That said, if you look at the GM side, you’ll see very real progress.

• In 2020, the lone GM opening went to Andrew Berry in Cleveland.

• In 2021, three of seven GM openings went to Black candidates.

• To this point in 2022, two of three openings have gone to Black candidates.

Add it up, and that’s 6-of-11 for this decade, with one job (Las Vegas), or maybe two (Jacksonville), left to be filled. And there are still six head-coach openings, with Brian Flores still in play with the Giants, Vance Joseph with the Dolphins, and Byron Leftwich with the Jaguars. Things are improving, without question, and part of that is the NFL has deliberately worked to slow down the process—so teams can get to know the candidates better along the way. With hires coming later, and from different places, it looks that specific effort is bringing back its desired result.

The Aaron Rodgers situation. The Broncos' hiring of Hackett definitely adds a layer of intrigue to the spot Rodgers is in. The reigning league MVP told anyone who’d listen over the last couple of years how much he liked playing for Hackett and what a good head coach he thought Hackett would make. It’s why the Broncos have been connected to Hackett in NFL circles since early in the season and a factor in why Denver was vetting him (along with Dan Quinn, with whom GM George Paton has long been close) before just about anyone else. And so I view this as the first salvo in the Rodgers sweepstakes. Will he stay in Green Bay? Will he retire? Will he ask to be traded? The emergence of a strong outside option may well affect how he approaches his decision. And make no mistake, the Broncos believe they have something to offer Rodgers that isn’t dissimilar to what they had in 2012 for Peyton Manning, with an array of rising skill-position talent (Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick, K.J. Hamler, Noah Fant, Javonte Williams, etc.), and young stars at corner (Patrick Surtain II) and edge rusher (Bradley Chubb) to build around. So yeah, this one just got a little more interesting.

The Shanahan tree sprouting more branches. Part of Denver’s search included interviewing two young offensive assistants who are new head-coaching candidates—Rams O.C. Kevin O’Connell and Packers pass-game coordinator Luke Getsy. I believe that if Quinn had gotten the Broncos job, Denver would’ve worked hard to get one or the other on board as his offensive coordinator. And if O’Connell doesn’t get the Houston or Minnesota job (he’s interviewed for both), each will have an opportunity to call plays somewhere. O’Connell, an ex-NFL quarterback himself, has long been seen as a future head coach, but he doesn’t call plays in L.A. Last year, the Rams blocked him from interviewing for the Chargers’ coordinator job, which would’ve been a play-calling position. So would McVay let him go the way he did Matt LaFleur to Tennessee in 2018? I think it’s a possibility. Meanwhile, Getsy’s in line to be promoted to coordinator in Green Bay, but with LaFleur there, it won’t be a play-calling position. And since he’s not the coordinator yet, he could leave, per the new rules, to become one somewhere else. I think the Bears, and others, will see whether they can get one of them to run their offense. Which is only more proof that the offense that you’ll see in the NFC title game, on both sides, is still the one everyone wants to run.

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah as a potential game-changing NFL hire. And I want to make sure that I mention that the Vikings’ new GM was, in fact, evaluating players for Andrew Berry the last two years in Cleveland. That part of the game won’t be new to him in the Twin Cities. That said, his background isn’t what’s been depicted of a football GM in movies or TV shows. He’s worked in finance. He came up on the operations side in San Francisco. And to me, his hire is a recognition of two things by the Vikings. First, this is a much bigger job now than it used to be, maybe 25 years ago, and scouting is just a slice of it. Second, the ability for an exec in that type of position to synthesize information—from scouting to analytics to medical to fit with the coaches and more—to put together a roster is paramount, with the sheer amount of information coming into teams being enormous. Anyway, I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago to lead my annual Future GMs column. There’s more on the topic there. Personally, having been around Adofo-Mensah, I think this is going to work. And people who’ve worked with him wholeheartedly believe that, too. If it does? The profile of an NFL GM could change a bit.

TWO BEST BETS

(Season record: 21–19. All I have to do is not go winless the rest of the way, and I’ve got a winning record!)

Chiefs (-7) vs. Bengals: I love where Cincinnati’s going. And I think they’re going to hang tough into the fourth quarter. But this feels like a 10-point win for the Chiefs.

49ers (+3.5) at Rams: I think this is a field-goal game either way. I’m torn over which to pick outright. But 3.5 is enough for me to take the underdog.

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ONE BIG QUESTION

Why did Dan Quinn pull out his name out of the ring for head-coaching jobs?

We’ll have more on this over the weekend. But for now, I really do think that for Quinn, this was about the difference between a coach taking his first shot, and getting his second shot. And looking at it can be instructive for people wondering how candidates approach these sorts of situations. So what’s the difference between a guy taking his first shot and a second shot?

Head coaches make life-changing money, and generally the head-coaching stock of young candidates can be volatile. There have been hot candidates who’ve gone through the cycle a couple of times, failed to land jobs and had their names cool off a bit. Conversely, sometimes a guy comes out of nowhere and gets one. In both cases, though, the personal financial implications are so great, and the league’s taste is so fickle, that it’s very risky to turn down an opportunity, even if it’s far from perfect, for a coach approaching his first shot.

Coaches taking their second shot are in a different boat altogether. They’ve already made the life-changing money, and usually they’re well-paid on top of that as experienced coordinators. And they’re also aware that most coaches don’t get more than two bites of that apple, which is why it makes sense to be more conservative.

I think that’s where Quinn falls. He had as much fun coaching last year as he’s had in a long time. He has a really good unit in Dallas, stocked with ascending stars like Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs. And I think after the ship sailed in Denver, and he flew back from Chicago on Wednesday, he reassessed things, and decided that it wasn’t worth just chasing his next shot at this point.

That decision took me back to what Quinn told me in late November, after he’d led the Cowboys to a win over the Saints, during the week that Mike McCarthy was out with COVID-19.

I asked Quinn whether the experience made him want to be a head coach again.

“There are definitely days like yesterday where it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that.’ Then there’s other days where I’m seeing Mike do administrative stuff and schedules and other things and I’m like, ‘All right, I’m gonna go talk about the defense,’” he said. “There’s pros and cons to it. But I definitely didn’t come here to think about what my next job would be. I came here to see what it could turn into and have fun doing it. I’m trying hard, and doing a good job of it to not look past where I’m at.

“So I’d say if a moment like that came up, it’d have to be somewhere that was really cool and really set up well, because that’s a big part of it, man. I want to make sure if it ever does get to that, I’d be selective in what I did because I know how much you put into it. And it really has to be set up so you can do a great job in that environment. That’d be the only way I’d consider it.”

And here we are.

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