Watching a pass being thrown is probably the single, most exciting part of football for me. There’s that moment of anticipation where you’re not sure if the quarterback threw with enough energy or precision, or whether his wideout will be where he has to be to catch the ball. Then there’s a new burst of tension when you wonder if the receiver will hold onto the ball; whether he will get popped by some vicious defender and fumble, or whether he is headed for Da House.

It’s a risky move for any football team, but it’s indispensable in the modern game. Running the ball is usually safer, but the rewards will often be smaller than those resulting from a perfectly thrown (and caught) spiral. Even Vince Lombardi, no big fan of long passes, thought that a shorter toss was critical to football success.

So it’s probably time we examined the current wide receiving corps for the 49ers. Out of fairness to each one, I’m going to address them in alphabetical order, because the gaps between some of these guys in terms of talent are extreme, and I don’t want to lose you, the reader, after I talk about the first four. Here we go.

Victor Bolden

Victor Bolden came to San Francisco last season as a undrafted free agent out of Oregon State. He’d put up some impressive numbers in Corvallis; although no one has taken the Beavers seriously as a football powerhouse for quite some time — so it might have been a case of being a big fish in a small pond. He broke a kickoff return for a touchdown in the preseason, and got 71 return yards against the Seahawks in Week 2. Then, he went almost completely silent until being placed on IR in December.

Bolden has problems catching and holding onto passes as a wideout. He’s also not especially big (5’9”, 179 LBS), and he doesn’t have the strength needed to break tackles from a cornerback the likes of Xavier Rhodes or Jalen Ramsey. His kick-returning ability isn’t the asset it was a year ago, either, since the 49ers also have Dante Pettis, Richie James and D.J. Reed (more on those first two shortly) battling for roster spots.

And, if that isn’t enough of a stacked deck against Bolden, he’s also facing a four-game suspension for violating the NFL rules on PEDs.

I’m guessing that Bolden, if he makes the team at all, serves out his suspension and is then quietly waived. At best, the odds of him seeing Week 5 in a Niners jersey are about 40%.

Kendrick Bourne

Another northwesterner, and another UDFA, Bourne played college ball at Eastern Washington University, where he set school records in total receptions (428), receiving yards (6,464), and receiving touchdowns (73). Last year, he and Jimmy Garoppolo became a hot passing pair in the last five games of the season, and in the OTAs this summer, he’s impressed Kyle Shanahan and many media observers with his hard work.

On paper, you’d think Bourne doesn’t have much of a chance to make the team. After all, he isn’t terribly fast (4.68 40-yard dash), and he has to compete with Aldrick Robinson, Aaron Burbridge and Richie James for a roster spot. But he’s got some good things going for him as well. He’s as big a wideout as the 49ers have (6’1”, 203 lbs), and as mentioned before, he’s a hard worker. Plus, he may have a ton of fiduciary incentive: he is not guaranteed a nickel in his contract, so if he is cut, he will be both unemployed and broke.

And Bourne has one other plus factor, this one an intangible. Last year, he got a late start in training and practice because of an archaic (and now extinct) NFL rule that said if you hadn’t actually gone through college graduation ceremonies, you couldn’t participate in team drills. If he hadn’t run up against that obstacle, my feeling is his spot on the team would be that much more secure.

I think Bourne has a good chance to make the team as the fifth wide receiver. I’ll spot him 80% odds.

Aaron Burbridge

Burbridge was a 6th-round pick in 2016, after playing college ball at Michigan State with Connor Cook. He played for the Niners that year and picked up seven receptions totaling 88 yards; not bad for a rookie, but not great either. Then, before last season got started, he found himself on IR. That is his entire professional career thus far.

I almost feel bad for the guy — because of the injury, he is no longer an exciting prospect, and he facing boatloads of competition for a roster spot. Even if he has successfully rehabbed himself, he still has rookie weaknesses (inability to separate from defenders, runs after catch) and inherent ones (lack of speed). Sitting on a bench and studying a playbook is a far cry from actually being on the field and executing it, no matter how smart you are. (Don’t believe me? Read a book on skiing and then go to the mountains with no practice. Let’s see how you do.)

I give Burbridge no more than a 30% chance. His window in San Francisco looks as if it has closed.

Steven Dunbar

Yet another UDFA, Dunbar is a product of the University of Houston. He appeared in 51 games there and pulled down some spectacular numbers: 180 receptions for 2,430 yards and 11 TDs, and 3 kickoff returns for an additional 51 yards.

If I almost felt bad for Burbridge, I definitely feel bad for Dunbar. Despite his talent, his college performance, and his potential, he is up against competition that has everything he has and, in many cases, more experience at it. It’s a plight of UDFAs everywhere, but I do hope Dunbar finds a place to play somewhere.

I peg his odds of making the team at…15%. Sorry, Steven.

Pierre Garcon

The senior member of the receiving squad, Garcon was drafted back in 2008 and has hung his hat in Indianapolis and Washington in addition to Santa Clara. Let’s just make quick work of his accolades:

  • 2009: 47 receptions, 765 yards, 4 TDs
  • 2010: 67 receptions, 784 yards, 6 TDs
  • 2011: 70 receptions, 947 yards, 6 TDs
  • 2012: broke the Redskins’ all-time franchise record for receptions in a single season
  • 2013: 113 receptions, 1,346 yards, 5 TDs*
  • 2014: voted the 80th best player (overall) in the league by his peers on the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players
  • 2015: 77 receptions, 847 yards, 6 TDs

*That 2013 season, Garcon was being coached by a bright, young chap named Kyle Shanahan. You’ll note it’s his best season so far.

Garcon was doing great in the first half of last season as well: 40 receptions for 500 yards before he went on IR. Close your eyes and imagine, for a second, what he could have done catching passes from Jimmy Garoppolo. Now open your eyes…it’s going to happen.

Some people have opined that Garcon can’t keep himself healthy or that he won’t be able to withstand the competition from people like Dante Pettis. Bull. Garcon’s physical abilities (by and large) aren’t a concern, he hasn’t been plagued by injuries more than the average NFL player, and he has been beating out competition for years.

My only concern about Garcon is his age. He will be 32 when the new season begins, and no one goes on forever in sports (especially in the NFL). No one really knows how many more good seasons he has left, but I’m willing to wager that his best one might be ahead of him.

Garcon is a lock to make the roster. ‘Nuff said.

Marquise Goodwin

Let me start off by saying that I am heavily biased in favor of this guy. Not just because he is faster than most speeding bullets; not just because he has come back from injuries; not just because he endured the loss of both a parent and a child in the span of a month last season but still insisted on playing.

It’s because Goodwin really, really, really improved over the course of last season. He started the year off really badly, dropping virtually anything that came into his field of vision (that Week 2 game against Seattle was especially horrendous), but by Week 8 he was taking down about 19 yards per reception (and about half of all his receiving yards on passes of 20 yards or more). And that was coming out of the hands of Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard. By Week 17, when he got concussed, he ranked 7th in the entire NFL in yards per route run and 3rd in that same category from the slot (showing Trent Taylor a thing or two). And his drop rate was below 6%, which was about a 40% improvement over his career drop rate.

John Lynch signed Goodwin to a three-year contract extension in March; that extension would probably not have been forthcoming if the team didn’t feel decent about Goodwin as an asset. He’s a lead-pipe cinch to make the team.

Richie James

Yes, it’s clichéd to talk about how seventh-round draft picks are longshots to make a roster. Yes, Middle Tennessee State University isn’t the next Alabama (or the one after that). But don’t let that fool you about Richie James.

He really is a longshot to make the roster. He’s rather short for the NFL (5’9”), and going up against league cornerbacks who can deflect passes away from him without leaving the ground would frustrate and embarrass him. He has to compete with every other player in this article for a roster spot, and there are no more than two openings in the case of an absolute cataclysm. And, on top of that, James is much more of a slot receiver than a wideout — and the 49ers already have Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne and the recently drafted Dante Pettis to fill that role.

I would give James one chance in four to make the roster. Not that Shanahan and Lynch asked me, of course, but I feel the wise move would be to stash him on the practice squad and hope another team doesn’t nab him. He’s got talent; the time just isn’t right for him yet.

Max McCaffrey

When I saw there was a McCaffrey on the roster, I started to get my hopes up; my son wondered if Christian had suddenly left Carolina and joined the 49ers. No such luck. Max is Christian’s older brother, so he has the family genes and pedigree.

That is the sum total of the upside for him, in my opinion. McCaffrey signed with the Raiders as an undrafted free agent two years ago, and was released; he was on the Packers’ active roster when they played in the NFC Championship later that same year, but he didn’t see any snaps, and was released again; he signed to the Saints’ practice squad in September of last year and was waived; he signed to the Jaguars’ active roster a week later and made one 4-yard catch in one game, and then was waived again; he signed to the Packers’ practice squad again last October, and was waived again; then he came to the 49ers after the aforementioned Victor Bolden Jr. went on injured reserve.

Did you get all that? Two releases, three waives, and 1 catch for four yards is the entirety of his NFL career. His odds to make the roster are 20 to 1 if we’re generous and 50 to 1 if we’re cynical. Nothing personal, Max — strictly business.

Dante Pettis

Pettis is a rookie, as we know, but his credentials are immense. As a member of the Washington Huskies, he racked up 163 receptions for 2,256 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns — and he also set an NCAA record with nine punt return touchdowns. As of this writing, Pettis ranks 23rd all-time in total punt return yardage (1,274 yards) and 17th all-time in yards-per-punt-return (14.2 per). The Shanahan-Lynch era drafted a record holder and a future College Football Hall of Famer this year.

Pettis has some work to do if he wants to fit into the NFL. At 6’1” and 186 lbs, he’s pretty slender, which means an aggressive cornerback could put his lights out with the right (wrong?) hit. His offseason should be in the training room first and the practice field second. Also, since he is about to be put into a prime position in a pro offense, he needs to mentally realize that playing a supporting role isn’t going to cut it the way it did at You-Dub.

Assuming Pettis doesn’t get horribly injured in the pre-season, he’ll make the team easily. Another roster lock, and God bless him.

Aldrick Robinson

Robinson is kind of the opposite of Pettis: a veteran who hasn’t completely lived up to his potential. After three years with the Redskins, he went to Baltimore for a season, then to Atlanta for a year (where Kyle Shanahan was one of his coaches), and then to the Niners last year on the second day of free agency.

The team has not put an immense amount of faith in Robinson, however. He’s currently in the second year of a two-year deal with no guaranteed money, and he’s been described as “a fourth or fifth receiver who can occasionally emerge with a surprise big game” by Niners Nation. Robinson has had flashes of brilliance in his career: he caught two passes for 75 yards (which included a 45-yard touchdown reception from Robert Griffin III) in the 45-41 Week 7 Redskins win against the Bears in 2013, and while he was in Atlanta he had 20 receptions for 323 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games. But his performance as a 49er has been circumstantial: the number of snaps he saw in 2017 can be attributed to Pierre Garçon’s neck injury and Kendrick Bourne’s pedestrian first several games.

Put that together with Robinson’s appallingly bad PFF rating (46.9) and ranking amongst wideouts (96th in the league), and it isn’t surprising that he has an uphill battle ahead. I give him 50/50 odds at best.

Trent Taylor

Kyle Shanahan’s draft crush in 2017 came to SF from Louisiana Tech, where he had caught 327 passes (a school record) for 4,179 yards and 32 touchdowns. In his final college game, he was named the MVP of the 2016 Armed Forces Bowl after recording 12 receptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns. And the train kept rolling: in his rookie season, Taylor got 430 yards and two touchdowns on 43 receptions — 63% of which came on 3rd downs.

Taylor is a wunderkind. He is quick, agile, and he can pick apart defenses as if there were only 7 men on the field. He has a low drop rate, he can shake tacklers who grab hold of him, and if a cornerback wants to joust with Taylor after the catch — Taylor will lower his shoulder and plow right into the poor sucker. I don’t know if I have seen a better slot receiver on the team since Jim Harbaugh was the coach.

Taylor will have two problems this year, although neither of them will preclude his making the team. Since Dante Pettis is known as a punt returning marvel, Taylor probably won’t see quite as much action running back kicks. Also, since Taylor is only 5’8” (even shorter than Richie James), he won’t be able to pluck long passes away from larger defenders (unless he can take jumping lessons from the Denver Nuggets’ legend David Thompson).

I can’t see Taylor not making the roster; whether he can keep that very slight frame intact in his second year is still up for debate. Another sure-fire lock.

Final Thoughts

Whomever gets those roster spots will have the chance of a lifetime to pair up with the best quarterback the team has had since at least Alex Smith. The pressure will be on every one of those guys to hold onto catches, stay healthy, and fulfill the potential that this team is bursting at the seams with. I am optimistic that they will do all of the above. Are you?