Let’s face it, friends and neighbors: Passing is 50 percent or more of the modern football offense. You and I have seen teams, I’m sure, with great players that weren’t winning teams, simply because they couldn’t advance the ball any way other than plunging into the line or attacking the edge of the defense on the ground now and then. Their quarterbacks either didn’t have consistent accuracy and willingness to attack certain windows (think Colin Kaepernick), lousy ball control (think Roman Gabriel), or had lousy receivers (think Troy Williamson, Charles Rogers, Scott Fitzkee, or other names you haven’t heard about because they were so God-awful).
Well, the good news is that the receiving corps in Santa Clara is a brand new bunch, and they will be remembered for years to come in a thoroughly positive way. Let’s set a spell and have a look at each of these guys that will be following in the footsteps of Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, and Terrell Owens.
Victor Bolden: If the coaches at Oregon State had been able to keep Bolden around for another three years, they would have done so in a heartbeat, because Bolden was the primary offensive weapon on a Beavers team that ranged from bad to appalling in recent years. Why he wasn’t drafted is a mystery to me — just look at these numbers!
Appeared in 46 games (36 starts) over 3 years.
Returned both kickoffs (108 for 2,420 yds. and 3 TDs over his college career) and punts (19 PRs for 186 yds. and 1 TD)
Had 28 carries for 329 yards and two touchdowns last year; averaged 12 yards a carry in the PAC-12
Over 3 years, ran 95 times for 727 yards and three TDs
Bolden wasn’t on the radar of too many observers, including this author, during the offseason, but he is a very welcome addition to the team and I’m excited for him.
Upside: Bolden could have been an Olympic sprinter; he can get up to very fast speeds almost from the instant the snap happens, and that gives him the ability to shed cornerbacks pretty easily. Try press coverage on him, and he’ll slip by you; try stopping him with anything other than a direct, blunt-force tackle, and he’ll spin away from you to get a couple of extra yards, even if you slow him down. And if he’s lined up in the slot, and you throw to another receiver on the same side in the flat, Bolden will see the oncoming safeties and block ‘em fairly well for a guy who’s only 5’9” and 179 lbs.
Downside: Bolden needs to work his neck muscles. (What?) Yes, he has to get better at tracking the ball over his shoulder, which is a skill we see in the Devon Cajustes and Sammy Watkinses of the football world. (And the John Stallworths, for those of you over the age of 40.) It is what turns great receivers into legends, and Bolden better master it.
In fact, given his size, it might not be a bad idea to build up all his muscles, because if and when a tackler does get a firm hold on him, he won’t be able to break away from that tackler right now.
How he’ll be used: At OSU, Bolden was best at quick screens, slants and fly-sweeps, and he has caught much the same in the preseason for San Francisco. For a while, I predict he will be catching the same stuff. Still, by all accounts Bolden has a great work ethic that will allow him to adapt to any route he is assigned, if he has enough time and coaching to learn it.
Kendrick Bourne: Bourne comes to the 49ers from Eastern Washington University in the Big Sky Division, where he played all four years of his college career and set school records in total receptions (428), receiving yards (6,464), and receiving touchdowns (73). I can only imagine how much fun it must have been for the fans in Cheney, WA to see this guy perform. Not surprisingly, Bourne was overlooked in the draft this year (curse of going to a small school), but he found his way to the roster through some very impressive preseason games, just outperforming some of the more well-known receivers (witness Jeremy Kerley).
Upside: Bourne is taller than many of the team’s receivers; 6’1” isn’t enormous, but with his long arms, it does give him the ability to high point the ball over a large number of NFL corners. He also has very quick hands, meaning he can snatch a pass out of the air, even if it’s right on top of him, and tuck it away to minimize fumbles. And he can also change direction if the route (or a broken play) calls for it, without either losing his balance or giving up on pass opportunities.
Downside: Bourne isn’t in college anymore; the Big Sky competition he faced was feeble compared to what’s waiting for him in the NFL — especially with the likes of Richard Sherman in Seattle and Patrick Peterson in Arizona operating within the division. Bourne also is not a traditional speedy receiver, especially when he has to run long routes. He can do the 40 in 4.68; that’s a respectable showing, but scouts didn’t think he could get any faster on long passes or long carries.
How he’ll be used: Bourne can get first downs in 3rd-and-long situations, so I foresee him being involved in those, but he isn’t the kind of receiver you want to use to make a dramatic statement. I’m thinking he may be used in some sort of special teams capacity also, where he made one statement hit against the Chargers which may well have contributed massively to his making the roster.
Pierre Garcon: The most seasoned veteran in the wide receiver corps, Garcon has been in the league since 2008, and has hung his hat in Indianapolis and Washington before coming to Santa Clara. He’s been a starter for almost all of his playing time, and went from 47 receptions in his second year to 77 just 2 years ago. In 2012, he broke the Redskins’ all-time franchise record for receptions in a single season in a Week 16 game against the Cowboys, and in 2014 he was named one of the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players. The 49ers signed him to a 5-year, $47,500,000 contract this past season, so the team clearly has a ton of faith in his ability.
Upside: Besides his productivity as a pass catcher, Garcon is a former protege of Kyle Shanahan — in fact, the best season of his career came in 2013, when Shanahan was one of his coaches. He stacked up 1,346 yards on 113 catches and scored five touchdowns that year. So there’s obvious synergy between him and his coach, and he is known as a fierce competitor to boot.
Downside: Garcon is 31 years old, ancient by the standards of this team, and there just hasn’t been enough time yet for the offense to really gel as a unit. It may be a question of if, not when, but the when hasn’t happened yet. (It’s Week 1. Get a clue.)
How he’ll be used: The easy answer is “everywhere.” The more complicated answer is…still “everywhere.” Garcon is ranked 8th in the NFL among wide receivers, and he should be the go-to guy any Sunday he plays. I’ll wager he gets another 1,000-yard season as he combines his competitive streak and excellent hands with the play calling nous of Kyle Shanahan.
Marquise Goodwin: Before signing with the 49ers in March, Goodwin had been with Buffalo, where injuries kept him off the field for much of 2014 and 2015. Bookending those years, Goodwin played 12 games in his rookie season of 2013, hauling down 17 receptions for 283 receiving yards. In 2016, the former Texas Longhorn played 15 games and got 29 receptions, 431 yards, and three touchdowns.
Upside: Goodwin also ran track at UT, and was an NCAA champion in the long jump; he also made the 2012 United States Olympic team in that event, so there’s no question about his athleticism. Unlike the other receivers we’ve discussed here, Goodwin is a good deep-route runner — he proved that in the preseason game against Minnesota — and he’s developed a great chemistry with Brian Hoyer since joining the team.
Downside: Goodwin has had trouble in the past trying to shake defenders, especially in press coverage, and he isn’t likely to develop a lot more speed at this point. His numbers from the Bills aren’t bad, but he only ranks 94th among wide receivers according to PFF. Maybe this is the year he rises in those ranks, but he is coming out of a just so-so stretch as we begin the season.
How he’ll be used: Although NBC Bay Area reported this past week that Goodwin “has been prolific on dig routes, crossing routes, screen passes and anything else that Kyle Shanahan has drawn up,” I feel his greatest strength is still on longer attempts. Luckily, he has a quarterback who has a strong arm, so it should be fun to see how much Goodwin can take it to the house this season. Equally of course, the speed that makes him such a threat deep will undoubtedly force corners to give him a significant cushion, which should mean that Goodwin can get open a variety of ways in this offense.
Aldrick Robinson: Robinson came out of SMU in 2011 with some mild accolades, and the first years of his career were equally mild: between 2013 and 2016 he caught two passes for 75 yards (as a Redskin), was waived by Washington, signed with the Ravens practice squad, was released by them, and then sprained his knee and missed all of the 2015 season. Not a very auspicious record, until he came to Atlanta and under Kyle Shanahan’s tutelage; last season, he had a career-high 20 receptions for 323 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games. (Oh yeah, and his team won the NFC championship and damn near beat Tom Brady’s Patriots in the Super Bowl. Remember?)
Upside: Since Robinson knows Shanahan and his offense, it makes sense that he would be a good fit. By all accounts he is a hard worker in practice and is supportive of his teammates (as he should be); he is equally talented in the slot as he is playing a wideout. An 18.6 yards-per-catch average is also nothing to sneeze at.
Downside: When he played in Atlanta and Washington (both times with Shanahan as a coach), Robinson was a fourth receiver, and he’s likely to resume that role, even with Jeremy Kerley’s departure creating opportunities for him. This is a rookie-heavy squad, so veterans like Robinson, while they deserve to be on the team, may not be the saving grace for the 49ers in 2017.
How he’ll be used: Shanahan has said that Robinson can run all the routes. How often he will be running them remains to be seen, but I envision him being a sort of utility receiver that the coaching staff can use in a variety of differing ways — and that he will perform very capably when called upon.
Trent Taylor: This is the guy I feel the best about. A 5th round draft pick this year, and a steal at that, Taylor was long reputed to be Kyle Shanahan’s draft crush after four years at Louisiana Tech, in which he set a school record for receptions (327). At the 2016 Armed Forces Bowl, he was named the the MVP of the game, a distinction that no other wide receiver can claim in this corps. Taylor caught every ball that was thrown at him during the preseason, which made him an easy candidate to succeed the aforementioned Jeremy Kerley as a slot receiver.
Upside: There is no one who can read defenses faster, and very few who can read them as fast, as Taylor. If you’re a safety playing against him, he can read every thought you have and if you move even an inch out of where you need to be, Taylor will exploit it and make you pay. He can alter his route if he needs to without slowing down even a notch, and he has no problem at all with lowering his shoulders and going after a cornerback who wants to take him out. You could almost think of him as the Reuben Foster of the offense.
Downside: Another small guy (5’9”, 174 lbs) with a thin frame, Taylor won’t be making any David Thompson-like leaps to catch passes, so Hoyer and C.J. Beathard better be right on target with their throws to him. Perhaps more concerning, he has a habit of fumbling after catching, to the tune of 7 through 4 years at LA Tech.
How he’ll be used: Taylor would appear to have positioned himself to be the 49ers’ starting slot receiver. He has the talent and the versatility to take on just about any pattern, and he has the youth and the willingness to learn that will make him a devastating weapon in the San Francisco arsenal.
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There won’t be any flying through the air with the greatest of ease this season. This will be a year when the football will become a piece of artillery, and the men catching it will be the torpedoes that deliver concussive blows to the opposition and send them to utterly humiliating defeats, both at Levi’s Stadium and elsewhere.
Damn, that’s poetic.
Featured image courtesy of Ben Margot, Associated Press