Reassessing the San Francisco 49ers' Draft Shortcomings at Wide Receiver
When the final book is written on the 2013 San Francisco 49ers, the story will ultimately boil down to shortcomings at wide receiver.
How the final chapters unfold have yet to be seen, but passing the ball has undoubtedly been the Achilles' heel of the 49ers so far this season. While many will point to injuries and chemistry, issues in the passing game come down to failures in an area where the 49ers have excelled in recent years: drafting.
Depth at wide receiver isn't exactly a new issue. The first miracle run of the Jim Harbaugh Era was done in by a combined one-catch performance by all wideouts in the 2012 NFC Championship Game.
In fact, wide receiver has been a problem in San Francisco since Terrell Owens' departure before the 2004 season. It took until just last year for Michael Crabtree to finally break 1,000 yards receiving, the first 49er to do so since Owens in 2003.
That said, the lack of depth hasn't been for lack of effort. The 49ers have selected at least one receiver in every draft since 2003, drafting 14 total players at the position over that span.
With that in mind, where is the production?
In short, not in San Francisco. With only two of these 14 players currently on the roster (Crabtree and rookie Quinton Patton), it's not hard to see how so many misses can cripple a position for the franchise.
On the following slides, we'll look back at the last five years of drafting wide receivers and what went wrong for the San Francisco 49ers.
Notable Picks Prior to 2009
Just before Mike Singletary took over as head coach, the 49ers invested a few more high picks in wide receivers. Despite a mixed bag of success, none ultimately panned out in San Francisco:
2006: Brandon Williams, Wisconsin (Round 3, Pick 84)
Williams briefly caught on as a return man for the 49ers and St. Louis Rams but never recorded a catch in two NFL seasons. Needless to say, that's abysmal production for a third-round pick.
2007: Jason Hill, Washington State (Round 3, Pick 76)
Another high pick, Hill achieved brief success with the 49ers, including 30 catches in 2008. However, nagging injuries limited his impact and Hill was eventually waived in 2010. Hill spent last season with the New York Jets after two quiet years with the Jacksonville Jaguars but is currently unsigned.
2008: Josh Morgan, Virginia Tech (Round 6, Pick 174)
Now a member of the Washington Redskins, Morgan has actually turned into a consistent NFL target. With 190 receptions and 2,398 yards to his name, Morgan was actually a starter for the 49ers before breaking his ankle in 2011. While not a superstar by any means, Morgan could probably have helped the 49ers early in 2013.
2009: Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech (Round 1, Pick 10)
There's no hiding how much the 49ers have missed Michael Crabtree in 2013, but good news could be on the horizon. The Texas Tech product has still not been ruled out for Sunday's tilt with the New Orleans Saints, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
Crabtree's pro career began with a 71-day holdout that stretched into October of his rookie season. However, after that rocky debut in San Francisco, Crabtree gradually progressed into a valuable target and simply exploded in 2012.
Before an Achilles tear in organized team activities derailed Crabtree's 2013 season, the 49ers seemed to have finally found their man. The wideout was blossoming into the player the 49ers envisioned when they made him the 10th pick in the 2009 NFL draft.
Last year's breakout season saw Crabtree record career highs with 85 catches, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. It remains to be seen what he will look like after a significant injury, but there's no doubting his status as the 49ers' best draft pick at the position in years.
2010: Kyle Williams, Arizona State (Round 6, Pick 206)
Contrary to popular opinion among Niner fans, Kyle Williams actually showed the potential to be a good wide receiver in San Francisco. However, that argument is now irrelevant, as the 49ers waived the fourth-year pro on Wednesday.
Williams will best be remembered for his disastrous NFC Championship Game in 2012, which saw the receiver muff a punt and fumble another return in overtime. Only returning punts due to an injury to Ted Ginn Jr., Williams infamously received death threats following the game.
Overall, Williams' tenure in S.F. should be defined as a player who showed flashes as a complementary receiver to Michael Crabtree...but never quite put it all together. After a torn ACL in 2012, Williams was pressed into a starting role early this season and floundered.
Of course, a career line of 47 catches, 574 yards and four touchdowns isn't spectacular. Then again, how many sixth-round picks do much more than that?
2011: Ronald Johnson, USC (Round 6, Pick 182)
Digging in the later rounds once again, the 49ers chose another receiver in Round 6 of the 2011 draft: USC star Ronald Johnson.
Keeping the last slide in mind, Johnson contributed far less than Kyle Williams did during his 49ers career. Johnson missed the final cut in his rookie season, never suiting up for a regular season game in San Francisco.
Johnson briefly caught on with the Philadelphia Eagles but was waived following his rookie year, suffering a fractured ankle during training camp in 2012. He remains unsigned and has failed to record a reception in his NFL career.
2012: A.J. Jenkins, Illinois (Round 1, Pick 30)
Of all the 49ers' draft mishaps at wide receiver, perhaps none hurt the team more than 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins. After waves of scrutiny during an invisible rookie season, Jenkins was traded to the Chiefs for receiver Jon Baldwin, another underwhelming first-round pick.
Jenkins failed to record a catch during his lone season in San Francisco, only appearing in three games. So far in 2013, Jenkins has failed to make much impact in Kansas City either, with only one catch for six yards.
Missed draft picks can have a ripple effect on teams for a long time, especially at a position of need in the top rounds. Considering how desperate the 49ers were for wide receiver help before this season, it's telling that the team still gave up on Jenkins after just one year.
Draft busts don't get much more epic than that.
Even more painful, consider some players selected after Jenkins. New York Jets receiver Stephen Hill and Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears were both selected early in Round 2, while the Indianapolis Colts stole T.Y. Hilton in Round 3.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Jenkins has thus far paled in comparison to each of those receivers.
2013: Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech (Round 4, Pick 128)
Despite a critical need for help at wide receiver, the 49ers waited until Round 4 to select Quinton Patton in the 2013 NFL draft. Still expecting A.J. Jenkins to make a leap, the 49ers decided that they could wait on a raw talent like Patton to develop.
Needless to say, they were wrong.
Patton put up monstrous numbers in two college seasons, with 2,594 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. He also received rave reviews from scouts, even drawing comparisons to Colts receiver Reggie Wayne in the draft process.
Unfortunately, Patton broke his foot in Week 4 after recording a single catch on the season. He is still working his way back, but it's hard to see the rookie contributing greatly in 2013.
Patton has the ability to be a very good player in the years to come, but the 49ers' continued failures in the draft left them with an immediate need. This isn't Patton's fault, and the team should be happy to have him, but previous mistakes led to unfair expectations.
The 49ers took a gamble that a fourth-round pick could take a significant role as a rookie. Simply put, they lost.
Whether you blame coach Jim Harbaugh or general manager Trent Baalke, the 49ers' current brain trusts have failed to produce a legitimate NFL wide receiver. The 49ers have otherwise drafted very well in recent years, but outside targets in the passing game have eluded them.
In fairness, the previous regimes also struggled, but not with a first-round pick. Michael Crabtree is the only drafted receiver who has proven to be a legitimate NFL starter, but he was a product of the prior staff.
What are the explanations for these results? Perhaps the team has consistently picked the wrong players, or the coaches haven't developed them well enough. More than likely, it comes down to a combination of those factors.
The draft isn't an exact science and not every pick will work out. That's the reality of the NFL.
However, a team simply cannot afford to miss so many times on one position. Football may be the ultimate team sport, but the weakest link has torn the 49ers down from Super Bowl contention in 2013.
Injuries have not been kind to the 2013 San Francisco 49ers, that much is for sure. But make no mistake: this team should blame more than just injuries for their shortcomings in 2013.
All they need to do is look in the mirror.