Three's Company: Options to Fill out the WR Corps
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Trent Baalke is good at two things: securing salary cap flexibility by refusing to sign free agents, and accumulating draft picks. Two things he was bad at were identifying and acquiring on field talent, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch inherited a dumpster fire from Baalke. While they’ve had their own misses over the years (see: Thomas, Solomon; Pettis, Dante) they’ve done an admirable job combining prudent aggressiveness in free agency, shrewd trades, and finding diamonds in the rough during the draft, to build one of the deepest and most complete rosters in the NFL. But through all their work, one position group has yet to come together like the rest of the roster. What’s going on at receiver?
Over the past two offseasons, we’ve seen the 49ers bring in two solid options at receiver.
First was South Carolina product Deebo Samuel. The 49ers used the thirty-sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft to secure the player Shanahan had fallen in love with at the Senior Bowl. Samuel brings a positional versatility that helps him excel in Shanahan’s offensive system. In his rookie season Samuel amassed 802 yards in the air with another 159 yards on the ground with six total touchdowns, Samuel finished his rookie campaign by breaking Gene Washington’s 49ers record for receptions by a first-year player (57), most all-purpose yards by a rookie (961), and the most touchdowns by a rookie (6), since Roger Craig had 12 in 1983.
The 2020 draft saw the 49ers trade up to the twenty-fifth overall pick to select Arizona standout Brandon Aiyuk. Aiyuk is long, with 33 ½-inch arms, and plays faster than his 4.5-second 40-yard time would indicate. A truncated offseason program and hamstring injury contributed to Aiyuk’s slow start to his rookie season. But once he found his footing, he quickly established himself as a formidable weapon in the passing game. In six of his last seven games Aiyuk finished with 73 or more yards receiving, while adding four touchdowns over that span. The most impressive part of Aiyuk’s rookie season may be that despite playing only 12 games, he passed Samuel in two categories: rookie receptions(60 to 57), and touchdowns, (7 to 6). As good as Samuel and Aiyuk have been, questions linger behind them.
During the 2019 offseason the 49ers brought in journeyman receiver Mohamed Sanu. After four years in Cincinnati, in 2016 Sanu signed with the Atlanta Falcons, where he worked with Shanahan. The veteran receiver made sense for the 49ers at the time: the offseason program was limited, there would be no preseason, Deebo Samuel had a foot injury that would keep him out, and Sanu was already familiar with Shanahan’s offense. Sanu was active for three games with the 49ers,recording one catch for nine yards on his only target. He was eventually released and signed with the Detroit Lions for the remainder of 2019. The 49ers brought back Sanu on a one-year deal this offseason, his veteran presence and experience in the offense should make him a valuable member of the receiver group.
The most frustrating member of the receiving group may well be Jalen Hurd. The running back-turned-receiver out of Baylor wowed 49er fans during his first preseason game, scoring two touchdowns versus the Cowboys, the second saw him bowl over a defender at the goal line. The 6’5” 230-pound receiver is the ideal red-zone target the 49ers have lacked during Shanahan’s tenure, but injuries have kept Hurd on the sideline in his first two seasons in the NFL. A back injury forced him onto the injury reserve list in 2019 while a torn ACL kept him out of 2020. He’s still an intriguing product and one that lights up 49er fans’ eyes, but at this point it’s hard to saw what the team expects from the third-year player.
Richie James is another intriguing player. James’ playing time has been sporadic over his first three years in the league, but it seems that when given the opportunity he makes the most of it. His career highlights include a kickoff return for a touchdown versus the Seahawks, 184 yards receiving against the Packers, and numerous plays where he provides a spark to the offense when things seem to have stagnated, but consistency has always escaped him. If James was going to be a reliable player on offense you would think it would have happened by now, taking into account his inconsistency as a receiver and limited ability as a return man, James may have played his last snaps for the 49ers.
Second-year receiver Jauan Jennings is as much of an unknown as Hurd. The Tennessee product had a respectable 59 catches, 969 yards, with eight touchdowns as a senior for the Vols and at 6’3” and 212 pounds,Jennings is the second biggest receiver on the roster. A poor combine contributed to Jennings’ fall to the seventh round, and after failing to secure a roster spot, he was cut and then brought back to the team’s practice squad.He missed the entire 2020 season with a lingering hamstring injury. In January of this year, he was signed to a reserve/future contract for the 2021 season. Jennings lacks the long speed you would hope for in a receiver but is an aggressive runner with the ball in his hands and could be a reliable target in the middle of the field if he makes the roster.
The 49ers are lucky to have a young talented receiver duo in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, but with the loss of Kendrick Bourne the cupboard is bare behind the two playmakers. There are still some intriguing names on the free-agent market, like Cordarrelle Patterson or Alshon Jeffery who could be brought in on one-year deals to bolster the depth at receiver, but neither one really moves the needle in terms of playmaking. It is increasingly likely that more draft capital will be spent at the position during this month’s draft. And if recent history tells us anything, it’s that Shanahan and Lynch have figured out exactly what they want at the position.
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