EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Kaden Smith hardly had an opportunity to break a sweat with the San Francisco 49ers.
A sixth-round draft choice in 2019, Smith was inactive for the Niners' season opener and was released before they played their second game. When San Francisco played Kansas City in Super Bowl LIV, Smith was the only one of the team's eight-man draft class no longer with the team.
But Smith harbored neither envy, anger nor bitterness. Two days after getting cut, he was awarded off waivers to the Giants, with whom he has found a home. When the 49ers visit the Giants in MetLife Stadium, Smith will not be seeking payback but instead the team's first victory of the season and a chance to visit briefly with San Francisco teammates.
"I made a lot of friends there and I was excited for all of the players," Smith said of the Niners' Super Bowl appearance, which resulted in a 31-20 defeat. "They have a lot of good guys. Guys like (George) Kittle, Garrett Celek, the tight ends, and then even everyone on the team. I was excited for those guys. It was a tough ending for them, but I'm excited to get the chance to play them this weekend.
"For me, I'd like to treat it as any other game, which any other game is just as important as the next one. I'm just kind of focusing on going out there and doing my job and trying to get the W."
Smith was waived by the 49ers on Sept. 14, 2019 (one of the tight ends the 49ers kept was Levine Toilolo, now his Giants teammate). Within 48 hours, he was flying to New Jersey and looking for somewhere to live in what was essentially a foreign land to him.
"I found out on a Saturday, and I think I was on a flight on Monday," Smith said. "That was my first experience with that, and hopefully only experience. It was definitely tough at the time because just coming in and learning a new offense and trying to do it very fast just to give myself a chance to go out there and play. But I was really excited. I had never been up to the northeast before. I definitely love it now. I was very excited to come experience it and play for the Giants. It's such a historic program."
View photos of the Giants' active roster as it currently stands.
Smith made his debut in a Thursday night game at New England on Oct. 10. Exactly a month later, he caught his first pass, a one-yarder vs. the Jets. But his playing time increased as the season progressed and at season's end he had appeared in nine games with six starts. Smith finished with 31 receptions for 268 yards and three touchdowns, including an overtime game-winner in Washington. The following week, he had season-high totals of eight catches and 98 yards in the finale vs. Philadelphia.
In the first two games this year, he played about 45% of the offensive snaps and caught four passes for 16 yards.
"Kaden does a great job of coming to work every day, doing everything he can to help the football team the best that he can," tight ends coach Freddie Kitchens said. "And that's going to continue. He's been a good guy to work with and a good guy to have around. He's a very motivated individual to try to do the best that he can do. … I'm very happy with Kaden."
"(Kitchens) pushes us to be our best," Smith said. "He's a fantastic coach. I think probably the best part is he wants us to swing for the fences. He wants us to try our hardest, do the technique and do it fast."
This offseason, Smith learned his fourth offense in three years. In 2018, he was named second-team All-Pac-12 after catching 47 passes for 635 yards and two touchdowns in his final season at Stanford. He spent several months in Kyle Shanahan's system with the 49ers and then Pat Shurmur's after joining the Giants. Now he's immersed in Jason Garrett's offensive scheme.
"I think players playing for multiple teams, multiple offenses, you do a good job of putting old offenses in the past, even though some names might be the same but mean something else," Smith said. "Just focusing on this offense and try to forget everything else."
Garrett and Smith both have ties to the Dallas Cowboys. The former coached them for 9½ seasons. The latter rooted for them growing up less than 30 miles from AT&T Stadium.
"We've talked a little bit about how I'm from Flower Mound (Texas) and how he knew the area," Smith said.
Smith was a star tight end at Marcus High School, so it's easy to guess which Cowboys player he most closely followed.
"Jason Witten was always my favorite player," Smith said. "I actually had his jersey when I was younger. I just loved the way he played. How he can do both route running and blocking. I think one of the cool parts was just how smart he is in the game of football and how he's not necessarily the best athlete, but still finds ways to get open by recognizing the coverage and being able to block a lot of guys and do well in the run game, too."
Unlike many youngsters who were enamored with the 11-time Pro Bowler – who now plays for the Las Vegas Raiders - Smith got a chance to know Witten.
"He has a house down in Florida (in the panhandle, where Smith's parents now live fulltime)," Smith said. "When I was going into seventh or eighth grade, he was at the gym I went to. He actually introduced himself to me, because he probably saw me over in the corner admiring him. We talked and I saw him a lot that summer, and we stayed in touch a little bit."
Smith has discarded his allegiance to the Cowboys and is focused on helping the Giants earn their first victory.
"We're all just determined to go out there, win, play well as a team, and most importantly, win," Smith said.