When Nate Byham showed up for his rookie camp with the 49ers, he quickly learned which play would be the team’s bread and butter: 60/70 Power, a basic handoff that defines coordinator Jimmy Raye’s power offense.
The first few days of offseason practices can be a ball of confusion for NFL rookies. But this particular task didn’t trouble Byham at all.
“We called it 16/17 Power (at Pittsburgh),” the tight end said last week. “Pretty much the same thing. All our rules and all our blocking assignments are exactly the same, so it’s easy for me to translate on plays like that.”
It has been a common epiphany so far for Byham. His college coach, Dave Wannstedt, was an NFL head coach for 11 seasons – six with Chicago and five with Miami – and brought a pro-style offense to the Panthers. Byham believes that makes his learning curve less steep.
“A lot of tight ends aren’t as fortunate as me, because they come from spread offenses or college-type offenses nowadays,” he said. “There’s not too many pro-style offenses in college. So I’ve been in that system for four years. Coming over here, it’s more learning how to change the name of a play or name of a protection, rather than learning it from scratch.”
Sixth-round draft picks like Byham are anything but a sure bet to make the team. He caught just 10 passes as a senior at Pitt and didn’t exactly generate a lot of excitement when the 49ers selected him.
Then again, the NFL.com draft site had this to say about the move: “Watch out, NFC West. The 49ers just added the second-best blocking tight end in the draft. Byham is an inline bruiser, who will knock people off the ball and create space for (running backs) Frank Gore and Anthony Dixon. Mike Singletary and Trent Baalke are making a philosophical statement about who the 49ers will be.”
Baalke, the 49ers vice president of player personnel, noted as much when he broke down film for reporters a week after the draft.
“We’re looking for a guy with enough quickness and athleticism to engage guys out in space,” he said while running film of Byham from college. “When you’re trying to find tight ends to project to the NFL, it’s very difficult. Most of these guys are undersized tight ends that play like receivers. They’re detached – they’re not asked to pass-block.”
Byham knows that if he makes the team, he will be asked to handle every variety of blocking known to man. It’s his ticket. Byham just doesn’t have the speed to create matchup problems for NFL defenses in the passing game. That said, he has shown during voluntary practices and the 49ers’ recent two-day minicamp that he is a capable pass-catcher.
“Oh, yeah. I mean, at this level of football, you have to be able to do both,” Byham said. “I’m known as the big, physical blocking tight end because I’m 275 (pounds). But I can catch the ball when it’s thrown to me. I need to work on my routes and everything, but I can catch the ball. I’ve got soft hands.”
Byham’s confidence comes as a little of a surprise. He’s a blue-collar player, and he quietly comes and goes to his locker without the bluster that defines a lot of athletes. Talk to him, though, and it’s quickly apparent that Byham feels he belongs on an NFL roster.
His challenge is to prove that he’s better than Bear Pascoe. A year before they selected Byham with the 182nd pick of the draft, the 49ers took Pascoe with the 184th. Pascoe also played in a pro-style system, at Fresno State, and the Niners praised him as a hard-working, hard-nose tight end. Then they cut him before the season started.
To make the team, Byham must outclass Tony Curtis and Joe Jon Finley, then hope the 49ers choose to go with a third tight end behind Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. Last year they began the regular season with two. So far, Byham thinks he’s right where he needs to be in terms of learning the offense.
“I feel really comfortable with all the plays now,” he said. “There’s still some gimmick plays and screens and things like that that I still need to work on, that we haven’t really gone over as a team. But everything that we’ve installed, I’ve been able to pick up pretty well. I know the two-minute offense, I know the base offense, I know all the personnels, I know what I’m doing at the Y and F position, so I’m feeling fairly confident. I know all my shifts and motions.
“Now it’s just putting all that together with the play and going out there and doing it.”