San Francisco 49ers: Top Remaining Free-Agent Wide Receivers

Bryan KnowlesContributor IIIMarch 17, 2014

Nov 28, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones (89) against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

After a week of free agency, the pickings at wide receiver have become a little thin.  The San Francisco 49ers haven’t dipped their toes into the wide receiver pool so far, leaving fans who were hoping for a major upgrade to the passing game disappointed.

Yes, Julian Edelman met with the team, but he ended up re-signing with the New England Patriots.  Emmanuel Sanders was also supposed to come in for a visit but failed to show up after agreeing in principle with two other clubs.

So, the 49ers are 0-for-2 in their search for a third experienced receiver.  There are still names out there to be had, however.

The longer players sit on the market, the more likely they will be to drop into San Francisco’s general price range.  With that in mind, here are the top receivers remaining on the market.


James Jones

James Jones
Pro Football Reference

Jones was one of the top free-agent receivers available to begin the free-agency period and is going to be the top target of anyone who missed out on the top wave of players.

Earlier in his career, Jones suffered with drops, peaking with 10 drops on 66 targets in 2009, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).  Since then, though, his number of drops have gone down each season, with only 3 drops on 93 targets this last season.  He’s become a sure-handed receiver, one who is hard to bring down when he has the ball in his hands.

Nov 10, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones (89) during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field.  Philadelphia won 27-13.  Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Jones forced 10 missed tackles last season and is consistently decently high in those rankings.  He’ll never be confused for someone shifty like Golden Tate, but he can break some tackles while getting into space.

The issue with bringing him to San Francisco is his lack of experience in the slot position.  Jones only played 64 snaps there last season and only caught eight passes.  Neither he nor Anquan Boldin make particularly logical choices to move inside.

There’s also the issue about paying for a career year.  Jones’ 817 yards last season were the most he’s ever had in the NFL, and he will be 30 this season.  You don’t want to end up overpaying for one outlier season.  Perhaps that’s why he remains unsigned as of this article—his demands may be out of proportion with his perceived value.

Jones would be a very solid player for San Francisco, but his role in the receiving game is already filled by Boldin.  None of the other receivers out there are better, but they may be better fits.


Kenny Britt

Kenny Britt
Pro Football Reference

From a strictly talent-based perspective, Britt is the guy you want to have on your squad.  Only 25, Britt has the physical talents to be the perfect slot receiver.  He’s an excellent route-runner with very good acceleration.  He’s able to run through would-be tacklers and pick up extra yards.

If this were 2011, we’d be talking about Britt as a top-level wide receiver, or at least on his way there.  Britt went for over 700 yards receiving in each of his first two seasons and flashed playmaking abilities.  In 2010, he averaged 3.06 yards for every route run.  To put that into context, Calvin Johnson only had 2.72 yards per route run last season, and Julio Jones only had 2.74 on 57 targets.

In 2011, however, Britt’s problems started adding up.

Aug 24, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans wide receiver Kenny Britt (18) is introduced before a game against the Atlanta Falcons at LP Field. The Titans beat the Falcons 27-16. Mandatory Credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports
Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Britt tore his ACL and MCL early into the 2011 season, putting him on injured reserve.  Since then, he’s battled ankle and knee injuries, and he hasn’t played a full season since.  There’s definitely a large question mark about his health going forward.

Off the field, things took a turn for the worse, as well.  Britt has been involved with the police nine times since entering the NFL and was suspended for it at the beginning of the 2012 season.

He also became a distraction in the locker room.  Britt was benched early last season for on-field mistakes and a lack of work ethic, and he became a healthy scratch late in the season.  He was dangled on the trading block, but found no takers.

There was some speculation around the trading deadline that the 49ers might make a move and grab Britt to bolster their depleted receiving corps, but nothing happened. Still, a change of scenery might be exactly what Britt needs to turn his career around.

The 49ers have shown that they’re willing to take on rehabilitation projects.  The trade for Blaine Gabbert is proof enough of that.  Britt would have to come at a low price, but there’s still that shell of a talented player there.  Perhaps the 49ers could unearth it once more.


Sidney Rice

Sidney Rice
Pro Football Reference

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The last two seasons, the 49ers have acquired a receiver from the defending Super Bowl champions.  Two years ago, it was Mario Manningham of the New York Giants.  Last season, it was Anquan Boldin of the Baltimore Ravens.  Could Sidney Rice make it three in a row?

Oct 17, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice (18) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When healthy, Rice is a very solid weapon.  In 2012, Rice caught 78.1 percent of his targets while working out of the slot, third best in the league.  He’s not the most fluid or explosive receiver ever but is a big target with very solid hands.  He’s an expert at catching jump balls, and at 6’4” would add an extra dimension to San Francisco’s passing attack.

“When healthy” is the operative term, however.  Not only did Rice miss most of last season with a torn ACL, but he’s also had issues with concussions over the course of his career.  He’s only started all 16 games in a season once, in 2012.  All in all, he’s missed 27 games over the last four seasons.

He’s healthy now, or so he swears.  Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports that Rice will be cleared for his new team’s entire offseason program.  If he’s healthy, and that’s a big if, he’d be a great signing.

He would likely come relatively cheap, as well.  Rice will likely sign a one-year deal to prove he’s still capable of producing on the field coming off of the ACL.  That means the 49ers could still draft a wide receiver early and let Rice go after one year if he didn’t work out.

Given the options remaining in the free-agent pool, I would opt for Rice.  While his health always has been and always will be a wild card, he provides the best fit for San Francisco’s receiving corps.