The 49ers had one of, if not the absolute worst wide receiver corps in the entire league last season. Even though the team went out and signed speedster Torrey Smith to a 5-year/$40 million contract the season before last, they had no idea how to use him. Smith looked like a fish out of water in the 49ers offense, so it was logical that the 49ers released him shortly after hiring general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan. Jeremy Kerley, whom San Francisco acquired late in the preseason in a trade with the Lions for incumbent OL Brandon Thomas, would go on to lead the team in receiving yards with 667. Kerley was one of the few bright spots on the forgettable 2-14 team.
Now that last season is in the past (thankfully), let’s take a look at the most notable wide receivers on the depth chart entering the 2017 season. The 49ers went out and signed Pierre Garcon, formerly of Indianapolis and Washington. Garcon is poised to lead the young group this season, on the field and off. Often-injured receiver Bruce Ellington is still on the roster (although maybe not for long). Ellington did not see the field last season after he tore his hamstring in the preseason. Last season’s leading receiver – Jeremy Kerley was brought back by Lynch and Co. The group is rounded out by the likes of Aaron Burbridge, DeAndre Smelter, Aldrick Robinson, Trent Taylor (R) and B.J. Johnson (R).
The 49ers proved they were in for a massive overhaul (especially on offense) when they released Torrey Smith, but after the draft the team really cemented that fact. Louisiana Tech’s Trent Taylor was Kyle Shanahan’s draft crush, and he made sure to acquire him. If knowing that doesn’t excite fans, I don’t know what will. He was also able to bring in former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Aldrick Robinson via free agency.
Let’s start off with taking a look at Pierre Garcon and how I think his first season with San Francisco will shape up for him.
Garcon started off his career in Indianapolis catching passes from none other than Peyton Manning himself. He then went to Washington D.C. to play for the Redskins for a few seasons. Garcon is not the biggest receiver by far, but he is a very reliable target with a low drop rate – .9% (1 drop in 114 targets, per Sportcharts). When thinking of the signing of Garcon, I just can’t help but not think of former 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin. Boldin was brought in towards the end of his career, yet he still had a few very productive seasons with the team, even topping 1,000 yards twice.
Garcon displays great effort on the field constantly. Whether he is catching a contested pass, breaking tackles, or run-blocking, Garcon is a player that leaves it all on the field. The 49ers desperately needed a veteran presence in the receivers group who can not only be a emotional leader but a physical one as well. Garcon will step into San Francisco and immediately be their #1 receiver. I would not be surprised at all if Garcon tops 1,000 yards receiving again, even with Brian Hoyer under center.
One of the grittiest players on the 49ers last season, Kerley showed a lot of heart fighting for every inch available. Kerley quickly became a fan favorite due to his effort on full display. He would go on to lead the team in receiving with 667 yards on 64 receptions on a 10.4 average, along with 3 touchdowns. The fact that Kerley was acquired late in the preseason last year just proves how bad this receiver group actually was. Quinton Patton was the closest receiver when it came to receptions, and Patton was still a whole 52 receptions behind Kerley!
Kerley was a free agent after 2016, but John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan felt it necessary to bring him back to the Bay Area. Lynch signed Kerley to a 3-year deal worth up to $10.5 million. When the season started with Blaine Gabbert under center, a rapport was quickly built between him and Kerley. Even after Gabbert was replaced by Kaepernick, Kerley was still the most reliable target on the field. Kerley also does really well at returning punts for the team, increasing his value that much more.
I expect Kerley to be the #2 or #3 receiver this year. I would not be surprised in the slightest if he tops his career highs for the second year in a row.
The team went out and signed former-Buffalo Bills speedster Marquise Goodwin shortly after free agency began. Lynch & Co. signed him to a 2-year deal worth $8 million. While Goodwin has yet to top 1,000 career receiving yards, he averages 15.9 yards per reception. The 49ers have been searching for that deep threat for years. They felt that Torrey Smith could not fill their needs, so he was released. Goodwin was an Olympian track star who ran a 4.27 40 yard-dash at the 2013 NFL Combine.
Hopefully Kyle Shanahan can use Goodwin similarly to how he used Taylor Gabriel in Atlanta last season. Goodwin will definitely be able to stretch the field for the 49ers and I think he can evolve into the true deep threat they have been lacking for so long.
Goodwin will most likely not be near the top of the charts when it comes to yardage, but look for him to continue with his large yards per catch (YPC) averages. I would expect Goodwin to have at least 10 YPC this season. His speed will bring a new element to this offense that will help them succeed.
Oh Mr. Bruce Ellington, where do we begin? The hopes were high entering last season in Chip Kelly’s offense. However, Ellington never saw a real season snap, as he went down with a torn hamstring in the preseason. When healthy, Ellington is a receiver with a very similar skill set to Jeremy Kerley, which drastically narrows his chances down when it comes to making the final 53-man roster.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Ellington makes the team, but at the same time I would not doubt him being cut as well. He has not been able to stay healthy and show what he can do on the field consistently. Also, the 49ers used a mid-round draft pick on LA Tech product Trent Taylor. Not to mention a new regime in town with no prior ties to Ellington, chances are that he’s as good as gone.
Smelter was a 4th-round pick back in the 2015 NFL Draft and the comparisons were instantly drawn to the likes of Eric Decker and Anquan Boldin. At 6’2″ 226 lbs., Smelter is tied with UDFA WR B.J. Johnson as the 49ers tallest receiver. He came out of Georgia Tech as a large receiver with the physicality to match. He had a knack of making the first receiver miss and had one hell of a stiff-arm.
Unfortunately, Smelter tore his ACL late in the 2014 season and has never really recovered fully. *Throw in your Baalke jokes here* He only has one catch for 23 yards while with the 49ers. However, he showed some flashes of being a solid receiver away from the ball. He is more than capable at run-blocking, which along with his height might separate him from the other receivers when it comes time to cut down the roster.
I would expect Smelter to make the final 53-man squad. He might need another season or two to fully develop, but I think Kyle Shanahan is the perfect coach to play for. I would look for him to have at least 25 catches this season, with roughly 250 yards receiving.
Aaron Burbridge, a 6th-round pick back in 2016, finished last season with 7 receptions for 88 yards. Burbridge is an outside receiver in a group full of slot receivers, which just might be enough to set him apart from the rest. Coming out of Michigan State, Burbridge was a well-polished route runner. He excelled at tracking the ball while in the air, a great trait to have. While at MSU, Burbridge had an eye-popping 19 receptions of passes thrown over 25 yards. He has good size at 6’0″ 206 lbs., but still had some struggles against tight man-coverage.
During his time at MSU, Burbridge repeatedly used his athleticism to bail QB Connor Cook out of some horrible throws. At the NFL Combine, he ran a 4.56 40 yard-dash, which isn’t great by any means, but Burbridge’s game was never really dependent on speed to begin with. I would expect him to make the final roster, and his comfortability at the short-intermediate routes will help him in this offense with Hoyer presumably under center.
Robinson spent the 2016 seasons with Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta, where he totaled 323 yards on 20 receptions. Robinson is one of the older receivers on the roster at 28 years old. He knows Shanahan’s system and could help the younger guys catch on faster. This will now be the third time Robinson and Shanahan link up – first in Washington, then Atlanta, now San Francisco. There is obviously something there that Kyle keeps vouching for.
Like Goodwin, Robinson is also known for his speed. He ran a 4.43 40 yard-dash at the 2011 NFL Combine. Over his career, Robinson has totaled 931 yards on 50 receptions and 7 touchdowns, along with a 18.6 yard average. The team could use him in a similar role to Marquise Goodwin, stretching the field and opening up the playbook. I fully expect Robinson to make the final roster.
The 49ers used a fifth-round pick on Louisiana Tech slot receiver Trent Taylor during the 2017 NFL Draft. Taylor was reported to be HC & OC Kyle Shanahan’s draft crush, so it is really exciting that he was able to get him. Taylor led the nation in receiving last year with 136 receptions, 1,803 yards and 12 touchdowns. His reception total was second to only East Carolna’s Zay Jones’ record-breaking 158. He may be a smaller target (5’8″ 181 lbs.), but Taylor is as reliable as they come.
Coming out of the slot, Taylor will likely become a legitimate security blanket for years to come out in the Bay. He also has experience returning punts while at LA Tech, which he will probably continue to do while with the 49ers. After the catch, Taylor displays an ability to kick it into the extra gear and take off.
Naturally, Taylor received instant comparisons to who else but Wes Welker. As nice as that may sound, Taylor is still a tremendous amount of work and experience away from being on the same level as Welker. He has the tools and potential to become a great receiver for the 49ers. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was the #3 or #4 receiver his rookie year, and improving on that every year.
According to NinersNation, the 49ers were okay with releasing UDFA WR KD Cannon because of what they saw in B.J. Johnson. Johnson stands at 6’2″ 213 lbs. He played in 44 games with Georgia Southern, starting 35 of those. In that stretch, Johnson totaled 1,377 yards on 92 receptions, with 6 touchdowns. In 2016 alone, Johnson tallied up 600 yards on 42 receptions and 3 touchdowns.
Johnson reportedly wowed 49ers coaches with his athleticism and were raving about him after mini camps. He faces an uphill battle to make the final roster, but with the lack of talent at the receiver position and a need for production, I would not be surprised to see him make the final cuts if he produces well in the preseason.
These 49ers wide receivers have already vastly improved upon last year’s group. With that being said, it is still an average to below average bunch in my opinion. The majority of the receivers are inside, slot receivers who are smaller guys. The team still lacks a true #1 receiver on the outside. We’ve all seen what Kyle can do with someone as talented as Julio Jones. Now, I know there isn’t a Julio Jones in every draft class, but this team desperately needs to invest either in free agency or (preferably) early in the draft next season in a true outside threat.