San Francisco 49ers: 6 Best Options to Bolster Wide Receiver This Offseason
Like any offseason projection for a playoff team, San Francisco 49ers fans surely have little interest in “options” that might “bolster” the wide receiver position.
Even when high profile names like Kelvin Benjamin and Jeremy Maclin are involved.
After all, the 49ers are two days away from squaring off with the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round for entry rights to the NFC Championship Game.
But football life post-2013 begins a mere three weeks and three days from today.
Which means the 2014 offseason is just around the Super Bowl XLVIII corner.
So whether San Francisco reaches—or wins—that hallowed game or not, management will keep focusing on improving the team’s receiving corps through free agency and the draft.
Before Michael Crabtree returned from his torn Achilles, the 49ers’ wideout contingent was a party of one.
Anquan Boldin led the way by a drastic margin through Week 12 with 52 catches (on 82 targets) for 724 yards.
Tight end Vernon Davis, despite his team-high nine touchdowns up to that point, had 52 receptions all year.
Fullback Bruce Miller was the 49ers’ third-leading pass-catcher. That statistic remained for three more games—even with Crabtree in the lineup.
San Francisco’s reigning No. 1 ended the season as the box score No. 3 with 19 catches (33 targets) for 284 yards and one score.
Point being, wide receiver was an extremely thin position for the 49ers this season. That will not change heading into next year.
Crabtree is clearly locked in atop the depth chart. Fourth-round draft pick Quinton Patton emerged late and is a legitimate tertiary asset in 2014.
But that’s it.
Mario Manningham never sufficiently recovered from his devastating knee injury in 2012. The unsigned veteran’s brief career in San Francisco is all but over.
Preseason starters A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams and Marlon Moore are long gone. Depth chart-listed wideout Kassim Osgood is a special teamer and a free agent on top of that.
The 2011 first-round bust amassed all of three catches for 28 yards in seven games this year (one start).
What does this all mean for the 49ers?
Run-first offense, defensive-mindedness and repeated history notwithstanding, San Francisco must draft a receiving prospect in the early rounds. It must also scour the list of cheap but proven available veterans.
Here now are the six best options to bolster the wideout position for the 49ers this offseason.
6. Jeremy Maclin (6’0’’, 200 Lbs), Free Agent
Note: San Francisco’s No. 1 priority is certainly re-signing Anquan Boldin. This and the other free-agent selections presented serve as possible contingency plans.
However unlikely, this option creates more than hypothetical intrigue for the 49ers.
The No. 19 overall pick of the Philadelphia Eagles compiled an impressive 773 yards and four touchdowns in his rookie year despite playing just 15 games (13 starts).
He then amassed career highs with 70 catches for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns, ranking top-seven in the league for his scoring totals in 2010.
Maclin averaged 66 receptions for 858 yards (13.0 average) and six scores from 2011-12.
The most obvious drawback here is Maclin missing all of last season after undergoing surgery for a right ACL tear on August 6. It’s yet another mark in an injury-filled career that has seen a full 16-game campaign just once.
But the 2014 free agent who “caught more passes through his first four seasons (258) than anyone in [Eagles] franchise history” anticipates being ready “for the start of spring practices,” per Philly.com.
General manager Howie Roseman left open the possibility of signing both. But even he understands that “this isn't an open buffet, [where] you can have anything you want,” Roseman said during a recent interview with Philly.com
Head coach Chip Kelly could very well look to bring in his own guys as well during the draft and further put his stamp on this organization.
Coming back full circle, Maclin is a big-play threat that would provide the 49ers with a dynamic player on all areas of the field.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman could line him up both inside and out. He would bring a much-needed speed—but not raw and unreliable—aspect to San Francisco.
Cap restrictions placed on 49ers general manager Trent Baalke could preclude this deal.
The same goes for Maclin’s established roots with the Eagles. They’ve seen his ability first hand and could be most inclined to offer him a substantial deal.
But one thing’s for sure—Maclin and Michael Crabtree would make one fine receiving tandem for Colin Kaepernick on Sundays.
5. Donte Moncrief (6’2’’, 226 Lbs), Ole Miss
There is something to be said about NFL-ready prospects that fall under the radar.
Donte Moncrief is one of the better collegiate wide receivers you’ve never heard of.
Astute talent evaluator Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com (h/t to CBS Sports) said that Moncrief “might be a better player than either” Sammy Watkins of Clemson and USC’s Marqise Lee.
Those are two of the higher profile names in this year’s draft.
It’s also worth noting that Rang rates Watkins No. 6 and Lee No. 10 on his latest big board.
Moncrief tallied 156 receptions for 2,371 yards (15.2 average) and 20 touchdowns in his career at Ole Miss, per Sport Reference. He left ranking No. 3 in school history in the above categories.
The solidly built outside weapon accrued those respectable numbers through above average qualities in all traits required of a wide receiver.
Scouts Inc. of ESPN Insider evaluated Moncrief with laudable marks across the board (subscription required):
Thrown into fire as a fulltime starter during true freshman season and was up to task…Consistently beats press-man. Effectively stems routes and keeps CBs guessing with subtle moves…Frequently separates from top-tier CB talent in SEC…Has big, strong hands. Good focus in traffic and body control…Does a very good job tracking the ball…Catches over-the-head ball consistently…Deceptive speed…good leaping ability.
In addition to those aforementioned skills, Moncrief is a player that will translate well in the NFL.
He will suit the 49ers as a mid-tier wideout with what Rang calls “functional football speed” and “awareness and toughness as a downfield blocker” in the running game.
Those abilities will make up for any potential lack of straight-line speed.
San Francisco will have a shot at grabbing Moncrief as far down as the late second round.
And Moncrief, for his part, might just provide first-round value.
4. Jordan Matthews (6’3’’, 206 Lbs), Vanderbilt
Welcome to the first of two 6’3’’, 206-pound options.
Jordan Matthews absolutely dominated SEC competition during his senior campaign.
Matthews set a conference single-season record with 112 receptions and 1,477 yards. He also had seven touchdowns.
Scouts at The Sports Xchange, for CBS Sports, deemed him “nearly unstoppable” and that “nobody so much as slowed Matthews…at any point this season.”
These numbers are made all the more noteworthy considering Vanderbilt’s conservative passing offense ranked 69th (out of 125) in the FBS.
The reputable football minds at Scouts Inc. qualified Matthews with this analysis (subscription required):
Prototypical NFL size for a WR…Big, strong and flexible receiver…Intelligent, hardworking and driven…Above average initial burst off the line…Uses size effectively to shield defenders…Very good field awareness. Finds soft spots in zone…shows very good concentration in traffic. Above average body control for size…[can] out-muscle defenders on jump balls…will drag defenders for additional yards…Adequate toughness as a blocker…Frequently works middle of field and usually is fearless.
Put Matthews down for plus-grades in durability, intangibles, ball skills and competitiveness.
He projects as a late-first to early-second round talent.
What might not enthuse the 49ers all too much are his average top-end speed and below average elusiveness.
Then again, like Donte Moncrief before him, Matthews is a “better football player than…athlete,” according to senior analyst Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com.
But unlike Moncrief, Matthews is the cousin of Hall of Fame legend Jerry Rice.
It’s fair to say that the 49ers won’t have any trouble with Matthews’ football lineage.
Odds are that the former Commodore won’t have much difficulty himself producing at the NFL level for the Red and Gold.
3. Kelvin Benjamin (6’5’’, 234 Lbs), Florida State
Catching the game-winning touchdown in the BCS National Championship generally serves as a nice resume booster.
Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin showed Monday exactly why he “fits what pro teams are looking for right now,” according to CBS Sports.
The 6’5’’, 234-pounder utilized every bit of his monster frame on his two-yard score. He shielded the helpless Auburn defender, leaping high in the air and snaring the ball at its highest point.
Heisman winner Jameis Winston simply threw it up knowing with full confidence that Benjamin would come down with the pass.
And that he did.
Benjamin lit up college football with 15 touchdowns overall in 2013. That ranked third in the NCAA and led all receivers in the ACC.
His 18.7-yard average on 54 catches made up for his modest 1,011-yard receiving total. Those numbers also have “game-breaker” written all over them.
Here is how CBS Sports sums up Benjamin’s strengths:
Near tight end size…with a ridiculously large wingspan, giving him a catching radius that is probably on-par with anyone at the NFL level. Shows the gliding speed and short-area quickness to create some separation and be a terror in jump-ball situations, especially in the red zone.
The 49ers have not had the luxury of such a tall, vertical threat since Terrell Owens. His “near tight end size” has not been in San Francisco since the likes of tight end Brent Jones.
(Couldn’t miss an opportunity for a Brent Jones name drop.)
Benjamin would finally offer the 49ers an outside target with elite leaping ability. The team’s red-zone scoring difficulties, per Team Rankings, have been all too common an occurrence in recent years.
However, this red-shirt sophomore is not without weaknesses.
Even though Benjamin would serve as a classic “toss it up and he’ll come down with it” receiver for Colin Kaepernick, he doesn’t catch everything.
The folks at WalterFootball.com note that the “mismatch nightmare…has to work on his hands [because] he drops too many passes.”
The world at large certainly witnessed as much through the first three quarters against the Auburn Tigers.
Benjamin is also unpolished as a downfield blocker and route runner. The 49ers run-heavy, West Coast system (i.e. complex route tree) might not take kindly to these deficiencies.
That said, if Benjamin falls to the bottom of the first round, general manager Trent Baalke must pull the trigger.
And if his current No. 29 overall ranking according to Scouts Inc. (subscription required) holds true, then that scenario would indeed present itself.
Either way, Benjamin is simply a one-of-a-kind talent. The 49ers cannot pass him up.
2. Danario Alexander (6’5’’, 217 Pounds), Free Agent
Little risk, high reward—Danario Alexander finds himself high on this list for reasons other than sharing my birthday.
Alexander has steadily improved his NFL game, per Pro Football Reference, after exploding on the collegiate scene during his senior year in 2009 at Missouri (113 catches, 1,781 yards, 14 touchdowns).
The big-bodied receiver unfortunately saw that annual progression stalled by a torn ACL in his right knee during an August practice session.
For those scoffing at another injury-plagued free-agent option, remain patient for just a moment.
Alexander is a cost-effective, poor-man’s Vincent Jackson. And that’s a good thing.
The four-year vet hauled in seven touchdowns on top of a 17.8-yard average in 2012.
He dropped just three passes out of 54 targets and caught 68.1 percent of all balls thrown his way—good for a top-20 grade by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Compare those numbers with Jackson’s seven scores, 15.7-yard average, 12 drops and 50.0 percent catch rate this season (No. 95 out of 111 graded by PFF).
Remember, Jackson is also getting paid over $12 million in 2014.
In any case, Alexander would fill a role currently unoccupied in San Francisco.
The 49ers can offer little guaranteed money in an incentive-heavy deal to this deep-threat receiver, and still draft a wideout at any point in the draft.
They would not sacrifice cap flexibility by bringing in Alexander.
General manager Trent Baalke could select the somewhat raw 6’5’’ Kelvin Benjamin while also having a fairly proven 6’5’’ Alexander producing later on the field and mentoring the rookie at the same time.
Call this a gridiron example of killing two birds with one stone.
1. Allen Robinson (6’3’’, 205 Lbs), Penn State
Recall an earlier mention of NFL-ready prospects?
Penn State’s Allen Robinson realized his well-rounded status under head coach Bill O’Brien, who recently made the jump to the same capacity for the Houston Texans.
The nation’s most respected leader of young men did his usual stellar work with Robinson.
Draft pundits at WalterFootball.com believe that the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator “has developed Robinson well for the NFL…[after] he excelled in the Nittany Lions' new pro-style offense.”
Indeed, the first-team All-Big Ten winner led the conference with 97 catches and 1,432 yards in 2013.
He totaled 174 receptions for 2,459 yards (14.0 average) and 17 touchdowns in his two starting seasons at Happy Valley (omitting his minimal production as a true freshman).
Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com, to CBS Sports, details the following:
Fluid and flexible athlete for his larger frame…Deceiving acceleration…dangerous catch-and-go pass catcher. Physical ball-carrier with balance and body strength to shake off defenders and pick up chunks of yards after contact…Does a nice job…finding soft spots in zones. Works well in traffic…to…win jump-ball situations. Uses his hands to fight through the jam…Tough and won't shy from contact. Large catching radius with a good vertical to attack the ball. Willing blocker in run support.
This analysis hints at a receiver that will excel against both man and zone coverage. It also reveals one that will succeed both underneath and in the scoring areas.
Being a willing blocker in the run game certainly doesn’t hurt his stock either with the run-first 49ers.
Unfortunately, Brugler notes that Robinson possesses “average vertical speed” and displays wavering focus and “spatial awareness on the sideline” at times.
But rest assured—he still projects as an early-round prospect and grades out as an NFL-caliber player.
COMPARES TO: Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers - Robinson doesn't have elite speed, but like Boldin he is a good-sized athlete with deceiving acceleration and strength at the catch point to be both a possession target and big play-threat.
So if No. 81 does leave San Francisco in free agency, what’s better than replacing Boldin than with the future version of the 49ers’ leading receiver in 2013?
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