“If the quarterback throws the ball in the end zone and the wide receiver catches it, it’s a touchdown”
-- John Madden
Jerry Rice isn’t walking through that door. Terrell Owens isn’t walking through that door. AJ Jenkins isn’t walking through that door, thank God. But that doesn’t mean that the cupboard is bare at the wide receiver position. Through the last two drafts and some savvy work during free agency the 49ers front office has quietly put together a wide receiver group that should surprise people heading into the 2018 season. In this article we’ll take a look at players that are locks to make the 53-man roster, position battles, and a two dark house favorites heading into the season.
During the 2017 off season, John Lynch and company knew they had to acquire talent at the wide receiver position. That summer they signed Kyle Shanahan favorite Pierre Garçon from the Washington Redskins and speedster Marquis Goodwin from the Buffalo Bills.
Garçon proved to be a reliable target for quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard early in the season. Before a neck injury that brought his 2017 to a close, Garçon was on pace for 134 targets, leading the team with 40 catches for 500 yards, putting him on pace for the second most catches and third most yards of his career. After Garçon’s injury the 49ers appeared to be in dire straits at wideout, but Goodwin stepped up with career year that eventually earned him a lucrative three-year, $20.3 million contract extension that included $10 million guaranteed. Goodwin lead the team with 105 targets that resulted in 56 catches and 962 yards, both career highs, he was also third in the NFL with 17.2 yards per reception. Goodwin suffered a concussion against the Los Angeles Rams in a Week 17 win just missing out on becoming the first 49ers wide receiver since Anquan Boldin to reach 1,000 yards. Both receivers should be featured prominently in the offense.
In the 2017 draft the team selected Louisiana Tech receiver Trent Taylor in the fifth round with the 177th overall pick. During his senior season in college Taylor lead the nation with a drop rate of only 2.84%, dropping only four passes of 141 catchable throws. Taylor was expected to push incumbent slot receiver Jeremy Kerley during training camp and impressed the coaching staff enough that it eventually led to Taylor taking over the starting slot position and Kerley being released. Taylor performed historically well in the slot last year, on slant routes Taylor had 15 catches on 15 targets for 189 yards and 1 touchdown, resulting in a wide receiver ranking of 141 versus the NFL average of 87.1, he converted 80% of his targets for either first downs or touchdowns. The team also brought in undrafted free agent Kendrick Bourne out of Eastern Washington. Bourne showed promise during training camp and made his way onto the 53-man roster, he finished his rookie season with 16 receptions for 257 yards in 11 games. Shanahan and the coaching staff have been quick to praise Bourne on his improvement during his rookie season and into his second year, he’s the biggest receiver on the roster standing 6’3” and weighing 203 pounds. Bourne has the size and talent to possibly development into the red zone threat the team lacked in 2017.
In the 2018 draft the 49ers traded up in the second round to select Dante Pettis from the University of Washington with the 44th overall pick. The initial thought following the draft was that Pettis would push Taylor in the slot, but the coaching staff feel that Pettis is a . Pettis finished his college career with 163 catches for 2,256 yards and 24 touchdowns. While he may not contribute right away at wide receiver, where Pettis is likely to shine is on special teams, Pettis left Washington as the NCAA career leader with 9 punt return touchdowns. With their final pick in the draft the Richie James from Middle Tennessee State. James is the small shifty type of receiver that flourishes in Shanahan’s offense. James’ college career was cut short with a broken collarbone his junior year, but before his injury he had 243 catches for 3,249 yards and 23 touchdowns, the yard and touchdowns are career records at Middle Tennessee State.
The incumbent wide receivers at the bottom of the depth chart are Alderick Robinson, Aaron Burbridge, and Victor Bolden Jr. Burbridge has shown value as a special team’s gunner while never panning out at receiver, Robinson finished 2017 with 44 targets, 19 catches for 240 yards and two touchdowns, and he holds $150,000 in dead money if he’s cut and I fully expect him to be, with the selection of James in the seventh round I think he pushes Robinson from the roster. It would be beneficial to stash James on the practice squad, but the combination of his athleticism and college production would surely see him claimed by another team. I think Burbridge also has an uphill climb for a roster spot following training camp, while he has shown value on special teams, running back Raheem Mostert was also a capable gunner last year and could take Burbridge’s spot. Bolden showed some promise as a kick returner last year but may have already sealed his fate with the team with a test for performance-enhancing drugs. Bolden is facing a 4-game suspension to start the 2018 season and probably isn’t worth the roster spot at this point.
Looking at the wide receiver group overall, it’s pretty surprising how quickly the front office and coaching staff were able to acquire talent. Coming out of training camp I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team keep six receivers; Garçon, Goodwin, Taylor, Bourne, Pettis, and James. The two players I’m most excited to see are Bourne and James, both have unique talents that could drive them to have successful seasons. With the influx of talent and a full training camp to work with Jimmy Garoppolo, I think this receiver group will surprise secondaries around the NFL.
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