There was a time when opposing defensive backs used to tremble at the thought of playing the San Francisco 49ers. Not only do the 49ers have a history of quarterbacks capable of picking apart a secondary, but they also always had a wide receiver that was a nightmare to cover. The same cannot be said about the current 49ers. Long gone are the days when Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens dominated the league for the 49ers.
The 49ers have had a hole at receiver ever since Owens departure in 2004. With Jimmy Garoppolo fully entrenched at quarterback after signing a massive deal, one of the main offseason priorities is acquiring weapons for him. A plethora of draft picks and an abundance of cap space leave plenty of options for the 49ers to finally fill the void at wide receiver.
Filling the San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver Void
The Current Wide Receiver State
In 2016, Kyle Shanahan spear-headed one of the greatest offenses of all time with the Atlanta Falcons. With the Falcons, Shanahan had all the offensive weapons he needed to execute his vision of what an NFL offense should be. When he took the 49ers head coaching job, he brought his plan and vision. Unfortunately, the weapons he used to have stayed in Atlanta.
Shanahan has a particular way he wants his wide receiver corps to look. On the boundary, Shanahan likes a do-it-all style receiver that possesses the toughness and strength to make contested catches over the middle. Accompanying this, there should be multiple speed receivers capable of taking the top off the defense.
In his first off-season, Shanahan did his best to recreate the 49ers receiver corps with this vision. He brought on board veterans Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin, and Aldrick Robinson. The 49ers also added rookies Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne. Goodwin had a career year as the speed threat, especially when Garoppolo took over.
Garçon, however, was injured for most of the year, and failed to make a significant impact when he was healthy. Garçon may have been a dream fit for the number one receiver in Shanahan’s offense five years ago, but he cannot assume that mantle now. While the focus of the off-season should be improving this group of wide receivers, the main focus should be to give Shanahan the true number one receiver that he covets.
Potential Free Agents
The 49ers should count their lucky stars that Allen Robinson appears to be headed for free agency. The crown jewel of the receiver free agent class is exactly what the 49ers are looking for. When healthy, Robinson has put up gaudy numbers with the Jacksonville Jaguars. His sophomore year saw him rack up 1,400 receiving yards along with 14 touchdown receptions. His 6-foot-3 frame and physicality make him the embodiment of what the 49ers need.
There are, however, several drawbacks of signing Robinson. He will most likely command a very large deal. The 49ers have the sixth most cap space of any team, but that is not an excuse to go on a spree unless there is a plan. The Penn State product also missed all of the 2017 NFL season with a torn ACL. While modern science makes recovery from such an injury common place, the 49ers would still be taking a gamble that he hasn’t lost a step. However, overall, the rewards far outweigh the risk, and the 49ers should heavily pursue Robinson.
When Sammy Watkins declared for the 2014 NFL draft, he was one of the most hyped collegiate receivers of the past decade. At Clemson, he displayed a rare combination of size and speed. He was the type of talent that every team wanted, and when the Buffalo Bills traded up to select him fourth overall, it was clear to see why. The first two seasons for Watkins were mostly successful. He was good, but was not phenomenal as many suggested he would be. After three years in Buffalo, he was traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
In Sean McVay’s offense, which is similar to Shanahan’s, Watkins was not particularly impressive. He showed flashes, but ultimately took a step back from his years with the Bills. Now, he is a free agent. Watkin’s skill set falls in line with the do-it-all style receiver the 49ers are looking for. Perhaps Shanahan can finally coax the elite receiver out of Watkins that he was projected to be.
Jerry Rice has long retired, but perhaps the 49ers could benefit by employing his cousin. Jordan Matthews is a physical receiver with a 6-foot-3 frame. For three years, he was the number one target for the Philadelphia Eagles. The Vanderbilt product enjoyed modest success, but never broke the 1,000 yard receiving mark in a season. He was then traded to the Bills.
With the Bills, Matthews regressed massively. He only mustered 282 yards and one touchdown despite playing in ten games. His frame and experience as a number one receiver are in line with what the 49ers are looking for. If they miss out on higher end targets, or wish to go the cheaper route, Matthews could very well don the red and gold in 2018.
The 2018 NFL draft class is particularly weak at wide receiver, but there are some gems. Courtland Sutton from SMU appears to be one of the draft’s best receivers, and is garnering serious first round buzz. Sutton’s 6-foot-4 build suggests a receiver capable of making contested catches over the middle.
One of Sutton’s greatest weaknesses is his lack of separation. While he possesses top-end speed, he lacks short area quickness needed to create separation. He can make the tough catches over the middle, but would need coaching to become a do-it-all receiver. If the 49ers were to draft him, it would most likely require their first-round pick, which ultimately may be too steep a price to pay for a project receiver.
Equanimeous St. Brown
If the draft was based on name, Equanimeous St. Brown would be the first overall pick. The draft, however, is based off talent and potential, which draft pundits cannot come to a consensus on with St. Brown. NFL Analyst Reggie Wayne thinks he is the second-best receiver in the draft, while Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller does not think he is in the top ten at the position.
St. Brown’s career at Notre Dame has been up and down. He has shown incredible athleticism with his 6-foot-5 frame, but did not put up great numbers. Perhaps it was Notre Dame’s run first offense, or perhaps it is St. Brown’s game. St. Brown may be worthy of a first round pick, or he may only warrant a day three selection. Shanahan will undoubtedly come to his own conclusion on St. Brown, and perhaps he will fall in love with his skill set.
If the 49ers are only interested in spending day three draft capital on a wide receiver, then Daurice Fountain could be their guy. Fountain is a small school receiver out of Northern Iowa. As a specimen, it’s hard not to like Fountain. He has size and speed to go along with incredibly long arms. Fountain looks the part.
There is a reason, however, that Fountain is projected to be a late-round pick. He did not put up great numbers and went to a small school. He will definitely need to be coached up by the 49ers staff. His raw skill set, however, caught the eye of several several scouts at the Senior Bowl. If he caught the attention of the 49ers staff, he could be the developmental project that eventually gives them the true number one receiver they’ve been missing for so long.
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