Image Credit: Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
When Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch took over the 49ers in 2017, they cleaned house and essentially turned the roster into an expansion team which resulted in five undrafted rookies making the team and not a lot of difficult cuts. In 2019, however, the cuts will be much more painful. With a much deeper roster this year there will be players who don’t make the final fifty- three in San Francisco that find work elsewhere, but unlike previous years it will be in the NFL and not State Farm.
From early camp reports, the wide receiver group will be the toughest to pare down. The 49ers have at least eight receivers worthy of an NFL roster. However, Kyle Shanahan is almost certainly going to keep just six players at the position. Recent draft picks Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd are locks to make the roster, which leaves four guys battling for two spots. Marquise Goodwin has a leg up on one of the remaining spots. Goodwin, who posted a 4.27 second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine and recently took home first prize in the inaugural 40 Yards of Gold, provides elite speed which none of the others can match. With Goodwin being less than a lock but being on ground far firmer than a bubble, that effectively leaves three players battling for one spot; can Richie James Jr. be the one to earn that spot?
In order to earn a roster spot, James will need separate himself from free agent signee Jordan Matthews and last year’s leading wide receiver Kendrick Bourne. Matthews brings two things that the receiving corps lacks, experience and size. Going into his sixth year in the league, Matthews has at least double the service time in the league of any receiver on the roster not named Marquise Goodwin. And at 6-foot-3 inches, 215 pounds, Matthews is two inches and twelve pounds heavier than any receiver on last season’s roster, which could really help the 49ers with some of the red zone issues that have plagued them during the Shanahan era.
The most effective red zone wide receiver the 49ers had last season was Kendrick Bourne; he led the team with four receiving touchdowns from the red zone in 2018. An undrafted free agent in 2017, Bourne led all 49ers wide receivers in receptions and yards last season, and he appears making the strongest case for a roster spot among the wide receiver group according to his head coach. Kyle Shanahan on Bourne’s offseason: “I always like to see how much room they gain on the other people while they are gone and KB made big jumps compared to some other guys and it’s showing on the field and he deserves it.”
So, how does Richie James Jr. make the 49ers 53-man roster?
When the offseason program started there were four scenarios that would land James on the roster.
Scenario number one: James beats out Trent Taylor for the slot receiver position.
When the 2017 season ended the 49ers had a lot to look forward to; they had seemingly found their franchise quarterback, and coinciding with the emergence of Jimmy Garoppolo was the rise of Trent Taylor. The diminutive rookie seventh-round choice from Louisiana Tech became a favorite target of the new quarterback and proved to be lethal on third down. Despite the promise that Taylor showed in his rookie season, the 49ers drafted a player with a similar skill set in Richie James, Jr. the following year. James, however, is more explosive than Taylor and has the ability to play on the outside as well as in the slot.
Trent Taylor was slowed by back surgery in 2018 and that left the door open for James to make a name for himself, but he was not able to capitalize. Trent Taylor is back at full strength and has played his way on to the roster this offseason.
Scenario number two: James beats out Bourne
Coming into camp, this was a much more realistic scenario. Despite leading all 49ers wide receivers in yards and receptions in 2018, Bourne was anything but a lock to make the roster, but he has had productive days in camp and perhaps most importantly, with his work ethic, he has demonstrated to the coaching staff that he wants to win a job on the team.
Scenario number three: James beats out Goodwin
As of right now this maybe the most realistic shot that James has of making the roster, Goodwin’s role this season is that of part-time receiver and field stretcher. If James can consistently show an ability to beat defenses deep, he might have a shot at unseating Goodwin. Goodwin’s inability to stay healthy last year and the public declaration of his desire to try out for the 2020 U.S. Olympic team (the Olympic trials take place in the middle of the team’s OTAs and the games take place during training camp) might open the team’s eyes to other options at the position.
Scenario number four: Force the team to keep seven wide receivers.
With the NFL’s arbitrary limit of 46 active players on game day, constructing a versatile roster requires sacrificing depth at one position in order to strengthen another while simultaneously being able to cobble together a competent special teams unit. One clear advantage that James has over Goodwin, Matthews and Bourne is his ability to play special teams. If James can show himself to be a reliable playmaker from the line of scrimmage as well on special teams, he might just be able to force Shanahan into making some deep cuts elsewhere on the roster.
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