Should the team eyeball a speedy receiver who can stretch the field and take the top off opposing defenses?
Or should the 49ers be looking to improve their red-zone offense by drafting a player who has the combination of size and skill that can turn San Francisco's multitude of field goals into touchdowns?
The ideal candidate would fit both of these molds—being able to stretch the field while also acting as a bona fide red-zone presence. Unfortunately, that type of receiver can be a hot commodity on draft day and there are relatively few who can fit the bill in terms of size and speed.
The good news is this: The 2014 class of prospective wide receivers is deep and laden with talent. This should give the 49ers plenty of options when it comes to improving the passing offense moving forward.
So which direction will general manager Trent Baalke and the front office decide to go?
It is not hard to fathom San Francisco selecting more than one wideout in this draft class. The plethora of picks the team has stockpiled for 2014 gives it tremendous flexibility in terms of approaching this particular draft.
Having a lot of picks is one thing. Utilizing them correctly and to the team's utmost benefit is another.
In this article, let us break down some of the aspects surrounding San Francisco's approach to tabbing a wide receiver through the draft. We shall keep in mind specific team needs along with the feasibility of selecting certain players who should fit into roles the 49ers need.
The Current Wide Receiver Situation
In 2013, San Francisco's passing offense ranked 30th in the league in total passing yards (2,979).
49ers fans already know the story. Losing wide receiver Michael Crabtree before the season began hurt. The lack of production from San Francisco's reserve receivers also contributed to the team's passing-game woes.
There were concerns about the maturation of quarterback Colin Kaepernick as well as offensive coordinator Greg Roman's play-calling.
The 49ers lead the League in rushing, but are last in passing. No team has ever finished last in pass offense and made the Super Bowl.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) November 9, 2013
These elements, among others, contributed to that low ranking and further cemented the need for San Francisco to act this offseason.
So what exactly is the situation the 49ers face moving forward?
The good news is that Crabtree should be back and healthy for 2014. The team is also making strides to bring back veteran wideout Anquan Boldin, per reports from Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
That gives San Francisco a nice one-two punch at the position, but what about the remaining 49ers receivers?
The two that come to forefront are Quinton Patton and Jon Baldwin.
Patton, who was selected in the fourth round in the 2013 draft, missed the majority of his rookie season due to a foot injury. Scott Kegley of 49ers.com projects that Patton should see an increased role in 2014.
Baldwin on the other hand was virtually a non-factor during the season—being active in a mere seven games during 2014 and logging only three receptions for 28 yards.
Baldwin, who was exchanged for fellow first-round underachiever A.J. Jenkins during the preseason, has agreed to take a pay cut and shall compete for a job per Field Yates of ESPN Boston (h/t Barrows of The Sacramento Bee).
Source: 49ers WR Jon Baldwin has reworked his contract. Base salary in 2014 is now $645k (down from $1.4M). $755 available in incentives.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) February 20, 2014
Okay, so that helps establish some depth at the position, but the primary question remains unanswered—how can the 49ers' passing offense improve in the upcoming season?
It may be unrealistic to expect Baalke to execute some sort of trade that brings in a bona fide receiver to the 49ers this offseason. While it is always a possibility, we should assume San Francisco will elect to target a prospect in the draft.
This makes sense given the fact that a rookie receiver would cost far less in terms of draft picks—barring the team trading up in the first round—and potential contractual obligations. Plus, the depth of this year's draft class is enticing enough to warrant more attention from the 49ers in this direction.
Approaching the Draft
San Francisco is again in a luxurious position when it comes to draft picks.
The 49ers currently boast 11 draft picks and can expect a likely third-round compensatory pick for the loss of Dashon Goldson last year, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. Seven of these picks are in Rounds 4 and above which gives San Francisco plenty of flexibility.
While the prospect pool of wide receivers is deep, the 49ers can also boast the luxury of being able to trade up over the course of the draft. The multitude of picks is what makes this a plausible option for Baalke.
By using Walter Football's draft value chart, we can further examine the seemingly endless possibilities when it comes to potential trades to move up.
Expect this to be a factor in the draft, much like it was when the 49ers traded up to acquire safety Eric Reid in the first round a year ago.
Evaluating Possible Targets
As mentioned—and hopefully beaten into your head by this point—the wide receiver draft class is deep.
With the 49ers potentially targeting multiple receivers in this draft, which players would best fit into what San Francisco needs on offense?
Former Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is an ideal choice in that he has an impressive combination of size and speed, yet CBS Sports projects him as being a top-10 pick in this year's draft. The 49ers would likely have to put together a substantial package in order to move up and draft him.
Mike Evans out of Texas A&M is another possibility who combines both size and speed. CBS Sports projects him going in the mid-teens of the first round, thus making a trade up more plausible.
If Mike Evans is there at 14 (Bears pick) the 49ers could give up 1st,2nd(KC Pick) 3rd .5th, 7th would equal the 1100 points in Value Chart— Bryan Bauer (@nflnfox) February 18, 2014
While raw, Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State has this combination as well and could offer both deep-threat potential and a red-zone mismatch if developed correctly.
One cannot also overlook big targets like Fresno State's Davante Adams, Penn State's Allen Robinson or Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief.
Yet players like Moncrief and Robinson lack the speed necessary to stretch the field. While NFLDraftScout.com (subscription required) notes that both receivers excel at catching passes in traffic, one has to remember that San Francisco already has two receivers of this mold on its roster—Crabtree and (most likely) Boldin.
If speed is the element the 49ers are targeting the most, there are a few receivers who would fit the bill.
Adams is one type of player possesses both attributes. Vincent Frank of Yahoo! Sports heralded him in his evaluation of the Fresno State standout:
At 6'2" and 212 pounds, Adams doesn't only have the size to be a consistent threat, he is the type of downfield impact player that the 49ers are in desperate need of at this point. He does a great job identifying coverage schemes and works well beating the defensive back to the ball. Equally as important, Adams is darn good at disguising when a ball is coming his way. This is something that young receivers are rarely capable of doing.
Evans and Benjamin also make this combination.
But if the 49ers are targeting a pure-speed threat, a few players who come to mind are LSU's Jarvis Landry and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks.
Cooks is a receiver whose play this author has been hot about for a number of weeks now. I am not alone in this thought.
Barrows also praises Cooks in spite of his small, 5'10" and 186-pound frame:
His current goal is to dazzle at the combine. Cooks has studied how other similarly sized receivers performed in Indianapolis. He knows how many bench-press repetitions Austin had, how high Smith jumped, how fast DeSean Jackson ran his 40-yard dash. He knows he needs to match—and perhaps top—them if he’s going to convince NFL evaluators he’s not just another swift but small receiver.
Projected by CBS Sports as a late first- or early second-round pick, the Northern California native could be an ideal grab especially if he falls any further in the draft.
There are plenty other targets that San Francisco could be looking at, but evaluating each of them is perhaps best suited for another time.
Establishing the Need
So it finally comes to this.
Are the 49ers going to focus more on speed or size when they elect to draft a receiver? Are they going to try and tab a prospect that meets both criteria?
Barrows breaks down this dilemma a little further here.
The ideal candidate—or candidates—would solve two pressing needs. A speed receiver not named Vernon Davis is needed to open up the passing offense. A red-zone presence is also required to turn many of those 49ers' field goals (32 last season) into touchdowns.
Is there any way to place value on one element over the other?
Maiocco thinks so. He emphasizes the "need for speed" over size by writing, "The 49ers already have two physical wide receivers that are on the slow side. And that certainly did not work last season."
Boldin and Crabtree are terrific route-runners who use their bodies to shield defenders. Neither is able to generate much separation, but both have incredible hands and can make tough catches in traffic. But the 49ers will be in the market for a wide receiver who can take the top off a defense—off the Seahawks’ defense, to be specific. During the regular season, the only wide receivers to have big days against Seattle were Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts (eight catches, 143 yards) and Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton (five receptions, 140 yards, two touchdowns).
If we base the argument specifically off what Maiocco says about the 49ers' receivers matching up against Seattle's vaunted defense, the point is clearer.
The Seahawks defense will be the best litmus test for whatever plans San Francisco has when it comes to developing its 2014 receiver corps.
While speed is a virtue, it does have its drawbacks if the 49ers are unable to punch the ball into the end zone, a consideration addressed by Bleacher Report Analyst Jasper Scherer.
49ers featured columnist Dylan DeSimone also backs up this argument as he stated on KNBR's Sportsphone 680 back in January. He emphasized that San Francisco's offense, when working, is typically able to move the ball down the field efficiently. The trouble resides in the end zone.
A big target could solve that need.
It is a tough question to answer—should the 49ers focus on size or speed when it comes to selecting a wide receiver in the 2014 NFL draft?
Love how split fans are on the WR type that best suits the #49ers. Some say they have physical guys + need speed. Others say size (i.e., RZ)— Dylan DeSimone (@DeSimone80) February 16, 2014
The short answer is simple. San Francisco should draft a player that fits both attributes.
Yet drafting someone of this caliber and subsequently turning him into an effective playmaker in a quick time frame can be complicated given the attention likely received from other teams during the draft.
If for whatever reason the 49ers are unable to land a coveted fast, large receiver, what will be the specific approach Baalke and the 49ers take when it comes to making this selection?
Which type of receiver best suits the 49ers?
Personally, I remain up in the air on this topic and have yet to decide which mold best fits San Francisco's pending needs. I am sure fans and other analysts remain split as well.
Hopefully, Baalke and the 49ers brass have a plan to address this issue.
All we have to do is wait until the draft to determine what that specific plan is.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @PeterMcShots on Twitter.