It’s as clear as day at this point that the San Francisco 49ers are in the middle of a full blown rebuilding effort. The roster, as it currently stands, is filled with young and unproven players that we can only hope will eventually evolve into solid NFL talents.
With the idea of rebuilding in mind, when you look over the position groups there’s at least hope in most places. RB Carlos Hyde looks like a safe bet to be able to carry the load out of the backfield. DE Arik Armstead and OLB Aaron Lynch have shown flashes of being cornerstone players in the front seven. Those guys provide real hope that there’s a chance of things turning around. Hell, even the offensive line might be in decent shape when you consider a group of T Joe Staley, T Anthony Davis (probably), C Daniel Kilgore, G Andrew Tiller and G Zane Beadles. That’s really a pretty soild starting five.
But there is one position group that I have to admit worries me, and that’s the wide receivers. What exactly is the plan here?
Let me start off by saying that I’m a big WR Torrey Smith fan, and I think he was criminally underused last season. Smith was only targeted 62 times through 16 games, which is an average of about 3.8 looks per contest. He’d never been targeted less than 92 times in any other season. Despite the lack of involvement, Smith still made the most of his opportunities, averaging a career high 20.1 yards per reception. He also caught 52.3 percent of his targets (tying a career best) and scored three touchdowns of 71 yards or more.
— Al Sacco (@AlSacco49) March 3, 2016
While I think Smith will be more involved and make a much bigger impact in 2016 under HC Chip Kelly, he’s not the type of receiver who can carry the load. Smith is very good at what he does (getting deep and taking the top off a defense), but the 49ers need someone who can compliment him underneath. After Smith, there just isn’t too much to get excited about in terms of being a sure thing.
As of right now, you’d have to pencil in WR Quinton Patton, WR Jerome Simpson, WR Bruce Ellington, WR DeAndre Smelter and WR Eric Rogers as the other five guys who have a chance at serious playing time.
Patton and Simpson haven’t shown they can be much more than rotational backups at this point, and neither player is someone you can really say will evolve into a significant piece of the puzzle. Patton has only managed 36 career receptions, and hasn’t been able to separate himself despite having opportunities.
Simpson’s had a decent season here and there with the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings, but at 30-years old he’s not going to all of a sudden be a go-to guy.
Ellington is intriguing, and Kelly will probably use him in a variety of formations, but he’ll be more of a gimmicky player, and at 5’9, is not someone that can play on the outside anyway.
There are wild cards here though, and they would be Smelter and Rogers.
Smelter was a fourth-round pick in 2015 but missed all of last season recovering from a knee injury (insert GM Trent Baalke/ACL joke here). At 6’2 and 226 pounds, he’s the kind of big, physical receiver Kelly likes. That’s all well and good, but he still has to prove he can return to 100 percent after the knee, and he’s very raw. Smelter only played two years of college football at Georgia Tech and didn’t see much action in their run first attack. In fact, Smelter only caught 56 passes in his entire collegiate career. With Smelter, everyone will have to be patient.
Rogers is another big bodied wide out (6’4) and was in high demand following his dominating 2015 season in the CFL. Playing for the Calgary Stampeders, Rogers led the league with 1,448 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. He was also fourth in catches with 87.
In giving Rogers a two-year deal, the 49ers showed they obviously want to keep him around to see if he develops. In Kelly’s offense he could, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he challengers for a starting role. Rogers is far from a sure thing, but at 25-years old, he may be the most intriguing receiving prospect the Niners have (which can be good or bad I guess depending on how you look at it).
Obviously, things can change here, and a draft pick or a late free agent addition (maybe resigning WR Anquan Boldin) switches up the dynamic. As of right now though, this is the group the team will ride with, which is a little scary. Would you feel comfortable going to battle with those five guys as your only options aside from Smith? I’m not sure I do.
The counter argument though is how will the Niners know what they have in prospects like Smelter and Rogers unless they play them? There’s some merit in that if the team does in fact feel they could be the answer moving forward.
For me, I’m not sure putting all of your faith in three backups, a fourth-round pick coming off an ACL injury, and a free agent from the CFL is the best course of action. In fact, I would argue Baalke and the 49ers need to get with the times, start putting more emphasis on skill position players and take a receiver early in the draft.
Only time will tell if the team feels the same way, but if they don’t, they’ll have to hope their faith will be rewarded and someone will step up to become a viable option opposite Smith.