NFL Draft

How 49ers' Super Bowl loss led to Pearsall draft selection

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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers’ surprising selection Thursday night had everything to do with what became apparent to everyone in their Super Bowl loss.

San Francisco had one of the top offenses in the NFL last season. Quarterback Brock Purdy set the franchise record with 4,280 passing yards.

With Purdy’s accuracy and coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, the 49ers devoured zone coverages.

But their wide receivers were not as automatic when it came to defeating one-on-one matchups. The 49ers’ selection of Florida wide receiver Ricky Pearsall with the No. 31 overall pick on Thursday night was a direct response toward solving that issue.

“They were just sticky across the board when they played man coverage,” Purdy said following the 49ers’ 25-22 overtime loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.

Kansas City's cornerbacks, Trent McDuffie and L'Jarius Sneed, in particular, put the clamps on the 49ers' pass-catchers. McDuffie broke up three Purdy pass attempts.

Deebo Samuel is one of the 49ers’ top offensive threats. But he is known as a receiver who is more effective at finding holes against zone coverages. In the Super Bowl, Purdy targeted Samuel 11 times and the pair teamed up for just three completions totaling 33 yards.

Brandon Aiyuk had six passes thrown his way. He had three receptions for 49 yards. The team’s third receiver, Jauan Jennings, who is known to be one of the team’s better options against man coverage, had four catches on five targets for 42 yards and a touchdown.

The 49ers appeared surprised by the high volume of man coverage that Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up in order to slow down Purdy and the passing game.

Purdy, who completed 69.4 percent of his pass attempts during the regular season, connected on 23 of 38 passes (60.5 percent) for 255 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

That is why the 49ers went with Pearsall in the first round of the draft, rather than addressing needs in the defensive backfield or the offensive line. San Francisco was correct to assume it is going to see more man coverage in the future.

Pearsall has good speed and athleticism while continuing to work on the nuances of route-running and creating separation against all coverages.

“Just being a receiver, you have to be really good at getting open and catching the ball,” Pearsall said. “Those are the two most important things I think I do a very good job. I think I'm elite at both those things, first and foremost.

“The things that separate me, I feel like, is my competitive spirit and how I compete on a day-in and day-out basis and just how detailed I am as a receiver too. As well when it comes to being disciplined in my routes or even just off the field, being disciplined in my everyday habits.”

The 49ers’ selection of Pearsall was surprising because his name was rarely connected to the team. San Francisco met with him at the Senior Bowl. After that, there was no contact with him, as they apparently did not want to send any signals of their intentions.

Pearsall said he was not surprised he was chosen in the first round of the draft, but he was not expecting the 49ers to be the team that called.

Unbeknownst to everyone outside the building, Pearsall was tabbed as the wide receiver who fit best in Shanahan’s system. The 49ers determined Pearsall was the best choice to keep the offense evolving with Purdy at quarterback.

“Whether he was outside, inside, either receiver, all three of the positions, he can separate down the field, he can separate underneath,” Shanahan explained. “He’s got really good hands, extremely smart, very well developed.

“I guess I'd call it a gym rat or something because you can just see he's worked on his routes, put in a lot of hours because you can see it on tape and there's really nothing he can't do. He can fit in whatever role based off the other guys.”

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