Off the back of 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan receiving a six-year contract extension, many pundits and analysts hailed the 40-year-old as one of the best coaches in the league, and perhaps the best offensive play-caller in the NFL.
On the road to Super Bowl LIV, it was the 49ers running game and Raheem Mostert that garnered the most attention with the aforementioned running back rushing for 220 yards against the Packers in the 2019 NFC Championship Game. However, while the Niners running game is plenty deserving of the plaudits it has received, the 49ers collection of pass-catchers has the potential to become one of the league’s best in 2020.
Traditionally, wide receivers are grouped into one of three classifications. First, you have your ‘X’ type receiver. Randy Moss, Clavin Johnson and Julio Jones typically fall into this category – big targets capable of beating double coverage, usually these guys are your number one go-to on the field. Next, you have the ‘Z’ type. This archetype is usually a slightly smaller, stockier build. Tight route runners who are capable of gaining a lot of yards after the catch. Cris Carter, Anquan Boldin and Roddy White were examples of past Z type receivers. And finally, you have your slot receivers. Slot receivers are typically around 6ft, crisp route runners, fast and the QBs hot read in case of a blitz.
‘Y’ types are tight-ends, and white George Kittle is the best pass-catcher on the 49ers, we will be focusing purely on the receiver corps for this article.
Successful NFL offences in the past have often stuck to this tried and true formula of having an X receiver lined up on the opposite side of a Z receiver. Cris Carter and Randy Moss with the Vikings in the 90s, Julio Jones and Roddy White with the Falcons in the early 2010s and, in recent years, Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins in Kansas City; the caveat here being that Hill’s speed and raw ability compensates for his height – making him an X type.
In San Francisco, however, Kyle Shanahan instead has opted to disregard this method and instead filled his receiver corps with players most akin to the Z type. While Emmanuel Sanders functioned as an X for the 49ers down the stretch in 2019, Sanders’ body type fits the Z archetype.
In 2019, per Sports Info Solutions, Jimmy Garoppolo’s average depth of target was only 6.3 yards, that puts him 3rd lowest in the league when compared to other quarterbacks to had minimum 250 throwing attempts in 2019. On the other side of that spectrum, Garoppolo ranked 4th highest when it came to total yards after the catch with the Niners pass-catchers amassing 2196 YAC in 2019. It’s pretty clear that the way Shanahan designs his offence, there is little need to X type receivers winning 50-50s.
Kyle Shanahan as created one of the most potent offences in the league without a Randy Moss, a Calvin Johnson or a Julio Jones. And with Shanahan’s recent draft choices at receiver, it doesn’t look like the Niners front office priorities that type of skillset.
With all that said, let’s take a look at the 49ers WR corps and see just what makes them so intriguing and dangerous.
The news of Samuel’s broken foot came as a huge blow for 49er fans everywhere, and rightly so. After an impressive rookie season, in which Samuel accumulated 961 yards from scrimmage to go along with 6 touchdowns, Deebo was primed to take the reigns as the number 1 option in the passing game for SF this year, filling the void left by Sanders’ departure.
I broke down parts of Samuel’s stellar rookie campaign here. But to briefly go over what makes this kid so special again, Samuel is a monster in the RAC (Run After Catch) game. When the ball is in his hands, Deebo turns into a running back. Often times it takes two or more defenders to bring the wide-out down. Samuel’s hard work and determination are clearly on display as he breaks through arm tackle after arm tackle. Take a look at this clip from Week Seventeen, the traits that are going to turn Samuel into a star are fully on display here.
As long as Samuel’s broken foot fully heals, expect to see a lot more of the dynamic receiver during his sophomore season.
As we all know, the 2020 NFL Draft class held some of the best wide receiver prospects in years. And when SF got a hold of the 13th pick, many a Niner fan was drooling over the prospect of Shanahan drafting CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs III or Jerry Jeudy. Instead, with both Jeudy and Lamb still on the board, the 49ers took a defensive tackle at #13. A few picks later, San Francisco would land Brandon Aiyuk, Kyle Shanahan’s number one receiver in the entire draft. Shanahan had Aiyuk ranked ahead of Ruggs, Lamb and Jeudy and with good reason.
Standing at 6’0, Aiyuk possesses an 81inch wingspan. For comparison, 6’5 legendary receiver Calvin Johnson held an 82inch wingspan. Moreover, Aiyuk is almost a carbon copy of Samuel in playstyle. At the collegiate level, Aiyuk wasn’t partnered with the best quarterback. As a result, Aiyuk had to create offence after receiving the ball via wide receiver screens, bubble screens, short routes across the middle etc. At Arizona State, Aiyuk recorded an average of 9.9 yards after the catch. Moreover, the speed demon obtained 1666 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in two years.
Perhaps the most conventional receiver in the 49ers corps, Borne is nothing spectacular. However, Bourne, bar a meltdown against Seattle in Week Ten, is a reliable target and has the type of mindset that could see him go far in the NFL. In 2019, Bourne amassed only 358 yards but scored a respectable 5 touchdowns making him the most effective endzone target for Jimmy G this past season. A big fan favourite, Bourne may not be the best receiver on the 49ers roster, but he does have the right attitude that makes him a mainstay on this talented receiver corps.
Pettis was the poster boy for the infamous ‘sophomore slump’ in 2019. A talented receiver, Pettis is incredibly ‘twitchy’ – a trait that serves him well in his crisp route running. Pettis, similar to Deebo and Aiyuk, has the raw talent that could see him become a borderline star in the NFL. However, through more than one instance of Kyle Shanahan being visibly annoyed with Pettis, it was clear in 2019 that there was a litany of attitude and motivational problems for young Dante. Following a loss to the Seahawks in Week Ten, a particularly irate Shanahan had this to say about the receiver, ‘The more he doesn’t take advantage of his opportunities, the less opportunities he gets.’
After flashing in his rookie season, and subsequently flopping in 2019, Pettis has a chance to redeem himself in 2020 and bounce back in what has come to be a crucial year for the former Washington Husky. If Pettis fails to make the jump mentally in 2020, expect him to be out of San Francisco.
An enigma of a player, Hurd began his college career as a running back, before swapping to wide receiver after growing a few inches. Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2019 Draft, excitement swirled around Hurd entering the 2019 season. His unique blend of size, 6’4, combined with his experience as a running back makes for an exciting prospect.
However, Hurd missed the entirety of the 2019 season with a persistent back problem. Flashforward to this offseason and Hurd is raring to go. Hurd did impress in the first preseason game of the 2019 season with this highlight against the Cowboys.
While Shanahan worked wonders with a similar type of receiver in Atlanta with Julio Jones, Hurd may not be that talented but his potential makes him a must-watch for the upcoming season.
Another question mark for the 49ers, Taylor flashed at times in his rookie season. An undrafted free agent, Taylor’s efficiency in the slot and high work ethic has made him a favourite of Shanahan and GM John Lynch. Taylor missed the entirety of the 2019 season with a broken foot followed by complications with infection.
What Taylor lacks in height and pure speed he makes up for in route running and shiftiness. While it may be a lazy comparison, Taylor has the potential to become a Julian Edelman, Wes Welker type. And with the latter being the wide receiver coach in Santa Clara, keep a lookout of the possible emergence of Trent Taylor this upcoming season.
James, similar to both Samuel and Aiyuk, is a player who really excels with the ball in his hands. Acting as the Niners primary punt returner last season, James saw limited action on the field as a pass-catcher but took his chances when presented to him. James’ potential is best displayed by this monster catch and run to ignite the comeback against the Cardinals last year.
A 7th round draft pick in 2020, Jennings is on the bubble heading into training camp this year. However, after watching his highlights at Tennessee, it is easy to see why he may turn into one of the steals of the draft. 49ers General manager John Lynch has become known for finding talent in the later rounds of the draft; George Kittle, Trent Taylor, D.J. Jones, Richie James and Justin Skule were all selected in round 5 or later.
Seeing Jenning’s talent on display, he could very well join that list and become a breakout star this upcoming season. If Jennings makes the 49ers roster, he’ll bring tremendous physicality, 6’3 212lbs, a serious jump ball threat and deadly RAC ability.
In conclusion, while the 49ers receiver crops are very much ‘by committee’, that’s okay. No reliance on a number 1, X type receiver gives the offence an added dose of unpredictability – something Shanahan uses to a lethal extent. Furthermore, Shanahan’s offensive scheme gets guys open, reducing the, often unreliable, dependence on talent. If your coach is getting you wide open with counters, misdirection, play-action you don’t need to be a freakishly good athlete.
With this in mind, if Jalen Hurd can stay healthy in 2020, on top of the hopeful emergence of Jauan Jennings, the Niners will have enough versatility in their passing game to be effective in 2020. Unproven but simmering with potential, the 49ers may just be sitting on a gold mine at the wide receiver position and the rest of the NFL doesn’t even have a clue.