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Why the 49ers pushed so hard for undrafted free agent Cole Hikutini

Cole Hukutini caught 50 passes for 668 yards and eight touchdowns during his final season at Louisville but injured his knee in the Citrus Bowl. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Even before the 2017 NFL draft was complete, Louisville tight end Cole Hikutini's phone was buzzing. The San Francisco 49ers touched based and so did the New Orleans Saints, Detroit Lions and New England Patriots.

None were ready or willing to use a draft pick on Hikutini but all were prepared to make aggressive offers to land him as an undrafted free agent. While there are a few rules when it comes to signing undrafted rookies, it's the closest thing the NFL has to an unfettered feeding frenzy for teams to add to their rosters.

So it's common practice for calls to go out before the draft is over and then the volume of those calls to increase when the draft is finally finished. For Hikutini, the competition was especially tough.

Once considered a likely draft choice, Hikutini's stock took a hit when he injured his knee at the Citrus Bowl and then attempted to run a 40-yard dash at Louisville's pro day before he was back to 100 percent health.

Still, the Niners kept tabs on him all the way through the draft process, even hosting him on a pre-draft visit. With the foundation of a relationship in place, the Niners relentlessly pursued Hikutini after making their final pick in the draft. According to TheMMQB.com, the 49ers inundated Hikutini with phone calls. First it was tight ends coach Jon Embree, who reportedly called Hikutini five times. Coach Kyle Shanahan called twice. General manager John Lynch took a turn. Vice president of player personnel Adam Peters was in constant contact with Hikutini's agent.

The more is more approach worked. Hikutini chose the 49ers.

"It was disappointing from the get go but I was real happy the Niners gave me an opportunity to come out here," Hikutini said. "It happened real quick, within about 10 minutes after the draft was over. But I’m real happy to be here and just ready to compete."

The Niners pitch worked on a couple of levels. First and foremost, they made the most enticing financial offer. While teams can only spend a maximum of $98,000 in signing bonuses for undrafted free agents, they are free to offer more guaranteed money in the form of base salary in the contract. According to the aforementioned report, Hikutini received a $10,000 signing bonus with a $100,000 base salary guarantee that comes with offsets if he's released and lands elsewhere or makes the practice squad.

Beyond that, the 49ers offered Hikutini a land of opportunity when it comes to making the 53-man roster come the preseason. The Niners have multiple tight ends on the roster but none that are so entrenched that Hikutini couldn't win a spot.

During draft weekend, the Niners shopped tight end Vance McDonald for a possible trade and other holdovers Garrett Celek and Blake Bell are far from set in stone. Logan Paulsen came in as a free agent and the 49ers added talented George Kittle in the fifth round but Kittle and Paulsen might not fit the role of "move" tight end that Shanahan envisions for Hikutini.

Those were all things that were part of Hikutini's evaluation in choosing a landing spot.

"We talked to the coaches and also (went) through and saw the depth of each team, me and my agent did," Hikutini said. "And just how they are feeling, their idea of where they want me in the scheme, that was really the key factor."

Hikutini had 50 receptions for 668 yards and eight touchdowns in a breakout 2016 season. ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay ranked Hikutini the second-best rookie free agent available after the draft. That production had him in the NFL crosshairs before the injury. Despite that injury, he didn't want to not do anything in the pre-draft process, even though it might have backfired in his 40 time.

"I’ve ran faster 40s than that but I wanted to go out and compete and show them that my knee was getting better," Hikutini said. "I think I probably came out (and ran) a little sooner than I should but I showed them that I can compete."

Now for the hard part. Hikutini will again be competing and attempting to prove himself but he doesn't believe it's too far-fetched that he could make the roster and even contribute as a rookie.

"I think the ability to stretch the field and get open, route running, I thought that was what I did really well at the college level," Hikutini said. "But I think creating separation, too."