Running back? Check. Offensive line? Check. Cornerback? Check. Dead weight shed? Check.
The 49ers did more in free agency this offseason than I have seen them do in years. They nabbed Weston Richburg and signed him to a five-year deal, and got Jonathan Cooper for one year, to shore up the O-Line. They picked up Richard Sherman, of all people, to come in and give a boost to a defensive unit that may or may not be suddenly lacking a certain first-round draft pick from Alabama next season.
They let some players walk: Tank Carradine, Daniel Kilgore, Carlos Hyde, Elvis Dumervil, Aaron Lynch, Brandon Fusco. Others are probably not far behind.
And I took great satisfaction in seeing the team get running back Jerick McKinnon for four years, particularly because I wrote in this space that he was my #1 choice to take over in the backfield after Hyde left. My first spot-on prediction ever as an NBN writer.
So what does that leave? Chances are that the team will draft their remaining needs, but just to give this series a good send-off, let’s look at what the team hasn’t yet done for its personnel. One position that feels unfinished to me is wide receiver, so let’s take a look.
The current crop of wideouts in Santa Clara is actually pretty impressive.
Marquise Goodwin caught 56 catches for not quite a thousand yards last year, which proves that the investment the team has made and continues to make in him has been well worth it. Trent Taylor had a decent rookie season, averaging 10 yards per catch — and before you start thinking “so what?”, remember that rookie wide receivers can take a few years to fully develop, so Taylor is off to a good start. Pierre Garçon did get hurt last season, but there aren’t many who can match him in terms of possession receivers and run-after-catch producers. He’ll come back ready to work with Jimmy Garoppolo and rack up some touchdowns.
But the 49ers still need a fourth receiver. Not just someone with good hands and a pair of legs to go with them. Not just a good complement to Goodwin, Garcon, and Taylor. We need a game-changer. And while I like all of the other wideouts the team has right now, none of them really fit the bill.
Kendrick Bourne and B.J. Johnson have the right size, but neither one is as fast as most of their teammates. Ditto Aaron Burbridge, who was lucky to make the team at all last year and will have to be super-lucky to make it this time. Aldrick Robinson didn’t blow anybody’s mind last season, though his numbers were almost as good as any year he’s had in the NFL. Victor Bolden is small, not especially strong, and won’t be able to break the tackles of an aggressive cornerback. DeAndre Carter is practice squad material with a few kick return opportunities, at least for now. Louis Murphy, assuming he is even on the 90-man roster when this piece goes to print, can’t stand up to a press defense and is likely to get his clock cleaned by a defender who isn’t fooled by quick moves. And Max McCaffrey is too much of an unknown quantity to be evaluated yet (although it would be nice to think he has some of the same talent his brother Christian has).
And here’s the bad news — I don’t see anyone on the free agent market who can be a true superstar, or even up to the level of the three current starters I mentioned earlier. In fact, the players who are even worth mentioning are second-stringers at best, or are probably going to be swiped by another organization. To wit:
Dontrelle Inman: Likely to be signed by either the Cowboys or the Colts sooner rather than later.
Kendall Wright: Not necessarily a good fit for the kind of offense that Kyle Shanahan likes, and I haven’t heard he’s even going to visit the West Coast as he shops himself around. The smart money is that the Chiefs will get him.
Tavarres King: Unremarkable statistics with both the Giants and the Bucs, and he has neither the size nor the ability to hold onto the ball that makes a passing offense work.
Eric Decker: On the wrong side of 30. His numbers have been all over the place since he entered the NFL 8 years ago, and his heart (if it is even in the game anymore) is probably in Denver, where he spent his rookie contract years.
So what do we do?
My advice is very cheap and coming from a complete outsider, but here it is: Don’t try to find a wideout in free agency this year. Either draft someone in the middle rounds that shows some promise (and I’ll let my colleagues here at Nothing But Niners handle that set of predictions), or take one of the men we have on our roster and try to make him into a game changer. Johnson or Bourne might have the right potential — and they might not.
Here’s to a lot of passes being caught next season, whomever gets them from Jimmy G and takes them to the house. And here’s to the wins that this team will finally, blessedly get from those passes. And to the Road to Six becoming a reality this coming season. The first bottle of champagne’s on me, boys.
Photo Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP