SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- One of the first orders of business for coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch upon taking over the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 was to sign free-agent fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
The Niners were so intent on adding Juszczyk that they gave him a four-year, $21 million deal that easily eclipsed any deal ever given to a fullback. The size of the deal raised eyebrows, but four years later few would question the move.
As it turned out, signing Juszczyk wasn't about getting a fullback. He's a versatile football junkie capable of redefining his position and allowing Shanahan to dream up an endless array of plays that all look the same on the surface but confuse defenders with the various wrinkles Shanahan installed with Juszczyk on the field.
All of that makes Juszczyk one of the 49ers' most important pending free agents and a priority to re-sign as the new league year begins on March 17.
"He's a unique person and a unique football player because he does so many things for you," Lynch said in January. "He's important to us and we're going to make every effort to try to keep him here. I'm sure there'll be competition and we understand that, but Kyle's a real important player to this football team and we'll do everything we can to keep him here."
After signing Juszczyk, Lynch and Shanahan began referring to him as an "offensive weapon," vowing that he wouldn't just be a run-of-the-mill blocking fullback. They followed through on that plan.
In four seasons with the Niners, Juszczyk's 102 receptions for 1,080 yards and seven touchdowns easily surpass the 43 receptions, 399 yards and four receiving touchdowns of the next closest fullback in each of those categories during that time. Juszczyk did that while lining up in the slot (9.3% of his snaps), at outside receiver (7.2%), at inline tight end (11.5%) and in the backfield (72%).
While the Niners have used a fullback more than any team in the league since acquiring Juszczyk, there's also a marked difference in how the offense fares when he's on the field and when he's not.
Over the past four season, the 49ers have averaged 5.99 yards per play (second in the NFL), 4.49 yards per rush (fifth) and 8.65 yards per pass (third) with two running backs on the field. With less than two backs on the field, those numbers dip to 5.45 (20th), 4.26 (23rd) and 6.48 (19th).
In 2020, the Niners were plus-2 in expected points added when Juszczyk was on the field and negative-8 EPA when he wasn't.
"He is, in my opinion, one of one," tight end George Kittle said. "I don’t know that anyone does the things that he does on the football field. I also think he’s incredibly under appreciated. But people that watch football, the people that understand football, they get how important Juice is."
Keeping Juszczyk in San Francisco figures to be easier said than done. When the Niners initially chased Juszczyk in 2017, they paid a premium because at least seven other teams were bidding. Nobody would be surprised if that was the case again this time around. No other fullback in the league or coming out of college offers the same skillset Juszczyk brings to the table.
"It is tough to imagine a different offense that would utilize me the way I would here," Juszczyk said in January. "I think Kyle and Mike McDaniel have just done such a great job of finding the best way to put me out there on the field and put me in situations to succeed. So, I owe them so much for just the opportunities that they’ve given me the past four years. My position is so unique that it’s easy to look around the league and say, ‘Eh, you know not a lot of other teams are deploying a fullback as much as San Francisco is,' but I’m gonna pat myself on the back and say that not a lot of other teams have me."
San Francisco will do what it can to keep Juszczyk but if it can't, don't be surprised if it pivots away from using a fullback as often and invests in more receivers or tight ends.
For his part, Juszczyk has made it clear he'd like to stay while remaining fully aware of the unpredictability free agency brings. Set to turn 30 in April and recently married, Juszczyk also realizes this could be his final big bite of the free-agent apple.
"It’s a lot different this go around," Juszczyk said. "I’d like to start a family soon, so a lot of that comes into play. I definitely want to be a part of a team that’s a contender. I’ve played in the NFL for a long time now and I know I have been on both sides. I’ve been to a Super Bowl and I’ve been on that 4-12 team and I promise you just for quality of life that Super Bowl contending team was a lot more fun."