Image Credit: Scott Young
The bye week is upon us; a time for rest and self-scouting and at 2-8 there is plenty of that to be done. Several of the 49ers’ position groups have not performed as expected coming into this season, some due to injury, others due to underwhelming play; one such group has been the wide receivers. Through 10 games, 49er wide receivers have 94 receptions for 1,190 yards and 10 touchdowns, combined. Having three different starting quarterbacks in ten games has not allowed the receivers to build much rapport with any of the quarterbacks, but are there other factors that have led to this lackluster showing? When looking at the 49ers’ wide receiving corps five things stand out:
1. A lack of capital invested in the position,
3. Injuries, and
4. Roster composition.
A lack of capital investment:
Evaluating wide receivers can be difficult due to talent disparities and scheme differences in college football as compared to pro football. One of the all-time masters of the NFL draft, Bill Belichick, has had more success turning a college wide receiver in to special teams standout than he does drafting and developing wide receivers to play wide receiver. Kyle Shanahan, a former college wide receiver at the University of Texas, has earned a reputation for developing wide receivers in the NFL, but perhaps the 49ers are relying too heavily on his ability and not giving him enough to work with. The team is currently carrying six wide receivers on the 53-man roster; of those six two were acquired in free agency (Pierre Garçon and Marquise Goodwin) three via the draft (Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor and Richie James) and one was an undrafted free agent (Kendrick Bourne).
Garçon was signed as free agent because Shanahan needed someone who was familiar with his scheme and he has put up some nice numbers over his career, but Garçon was on the wrong side of thirty when he was signed, and his play has steadily declined. Goodwin was brought in to be the speed element on the opposite side of Garçon, the possession receiver, and he had a breakout year in 2017 catching more passes (56) for more yards (962) than he had in his previous four years combined. In 2018, Goodwin has looked more like he did prior to 2017 than the 2017 version. Since Shanahan took over, all the draft capital spent at the receiver position has been in the fifth round or later, except for Dante Pettis who was taken in the second round. Trent Taylor was fifth round pick, Richie James a seventh rounder and Kendrick Bourne was an undrafted free agent.
According to former NFL head coach (and 49er assistant) Brian Billick, wide receiver is one of the toughest transitions to make when going from college to the NFL. Much like a quarterback, a receiver must learn to read NFL defenses in order to make the proper adjustments on his route and just like a quarterback learning to make the right reads takes repetition and game experience. In his second year, Kendrick Bourne has shown that he is worthy of development, but he has yet to develop consistency on and off the field to prove that he can be counted on long term and has had issues with his route running. Dante Pettis might be the most physically gifted of the 49ers’ receivers, but he has found the transition form the college game to be quite difficult. Pettis has not made much of an impact this season, outside of an outstanding touchdown grab in Week 1, and has been called out by his head coach for running the wrong route a couple of times this season; the Monday Night Football cameras caught Kyle Shanahan explaining, in a very candid way, that he needed to see better route running from Pettis. Richie James, another dynamic rookie receiver, has also found it difficult to make an impact on the field. Despite injuries at the position, James has had a difficult time getting on the field and even though James had a good showing against the Oakland Raiders, he managed only five snaps from scrimmage Monday night.
Whether it is the injuries to the quarterbacks or wide receivers, they have been a major cause the lackluster performance of the group this year. The injury bug really dates back to last season when Garçon’s season was cut short with a broken neck (it sounds worse than it was, which is easy for me to say since it wasn’t my neck). Until his injury, Garçon was on pace for a 1,000-yard season.
After coming on in the last six games of 2017, Trent Taylor had offseason back surgery and has not really been the same player since. Goodwin and Garçon have been in and out of the lineup this season with various injuries since the first week, although Goodwin seems to have gotten past his injuries. Even though he was active Week 1 following offseason back surgery, Taylor has not been the same player he was last season and has started to cede some his snaps to Richie James and Dante Pettis.
Pettis has also missed several weeks with a knee injury.
The 49ers lack a truly physically gifted wide receiver. Sure Marquise Goodwin is one of the three fastest players in the league, but he is listed at 5-foot 8, and 180 pounds. Trent Taylor and Richie James are both similar in stature to Goodwin but lack his speed. Garçon and Bourne are 6-foot and 6-foot-1 respectively, but booth lack the downfield speed to threaten defenses and Bourne lacks the strength to consistently make contested catches. Pettis is the most physically gifted of all the 49ers’ receivers but has yet to add the strength needed to regularly defeat cornerbacks who jam him at the line of scrimmage and to consistently be a reliable target in the red zone.
How do the 49ers improve the performance of their receiving corps going forward? For the remainder of this season all the reps need to go to the players that factor in to 2019 and beyond. Trent Taylor should head to injured reserve (I.R.) to rest his back so that he is 100 percent for training camp next year. With Taylor on I.R., more snaps would be available for Richie James to develop as he figures to be a big piece of the offense beyond this year. Pierre Garçon likely won’t figure in to the team’s plans beyond this season, which means his snaps should start going, at least in part to Dante Pettis.
Further adjustments to the roster will have to wait until the off season when the team can invest more capital in to the position. According to Spotrac the 49ers rank 12th in wide receiver positional spending, but that number is very misleading as Garçon’s salary cap number is larger than that of the other five receivers’ combined. This year’s free agent class does not offer any surefire fixes, but instead features boom or bust candidates like Donte Moncrief or reclamation projects like Kevin White, so any upgrades will have to come via the draft. Fortunately for the 49ers, this year’s draft class is as stacked as any since 2014. Unfortunately for the 49ers this is the first year in the Shanahan-Lynch regime they won’t have extra picks in the draft, in fact, they are without a fifth- and seventh-round pick. With depth at two of the most needed positions for the 49ers, and a top-five pick staring them in the face, this might be the perfect opportunity for a trade down. However they choose to go about it, the 49ers must get a true go-to receiver.
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