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An In-Depth Look at San Francisco 49ers' Most Intriguing Pick, Bruce Ellington

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An In-Depth Look at San Francisco 49ers' Most Intriguing Pick, Bruce Ellington
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

At South Carolina, he averaged 22.7 yards per kickoff return, 15.0 yards per catch and 11.2 points per game...the latter on the basketball court. 

Meet Bruce Ellington, the San Francisco 49ers' newest wide receiver, kickoff returner and point guard.

By most accounts, Ellington wasn't supposed to last to the fourth round of the 2014 NFL draft. The Gamecocks' two-sport star had 15 touchdown receptions in his final two seasons combined. Then, he impressed scouts with a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and a 39.5-inch vertical jump at the NFL combine. 

Ultimately, he fell in large part due to his height (5'9") and his relative lack of experience. But he has the skill set to make other teams regret passing on him on Day 2. 

Let's take a look at some highlights of Ellington to get a sense of his NFL potential.

 

Receiver Skills

Ellington had 89 receptions in his last two seasons combined, none more impressive than this one.

It's worth noting first that Ellington has a step on the defensive back. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw underthrows the pass to the outside, forcing Ellington to decelerate and make an adjustment on the ball. 

He then hauls in the pass from his shoelaces for a 32-yard gain. In one play, we see great speed, exceptional body control and sure hands. 

Two other catches stood out for me in the video below:

At the 40-second mark, Ellington runs the seam route that slot receivers and tight ends are expected to run in the NFL. He beats the defensive back with his speed, secures the catch and holds on after the safety hits him. 

At the 2:31 mark of the video, Ellington saves Shaw with an incredible catch on fourth down. Ellington is wide open out of his break, but Shaw's pass is thrown a few yards too far. 

I'm not sure how he adjusted to the ball so quickly and tipped it to himself. It's clear Ellington has good depth perception and terrific hand-eye coordination when the ball is in the air. 

 

Return Skills 

Ellington had 43 kickoff returns for 997 yards in his South Carolina career. The following return came in 2012 against Missouri:

Notice at about the nine-second mark Ellington uses his short-area burst to evade three defenders. 

We already knew about his explosive speed from his 40 time, but it's rather obvious from this clip that he also has great quickness. It comes as no surprise that he was also in the top five in 20-yard shuttle at the combine.

Ellington only returned three punts in this collegiate career. The art of the punt return is far more difficult to master than returning kickoffs. To become San Francisco's starting punt returner, he'll have to show he's comfortable in that role in training camp.

 

Scout's Take

Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote this about Ellington's strengths:

Good fluidity and balance as a route-runner. Best attribute is his body control and hand-eye coordination when the ball is in the air. Shows the ability to contort his body to adjust and possesses very natural hands and a surprisingly wide catch radius to extend and pluck. Can track over either shoulder, as well as turn back and time his leap well to out-jump taller, bigger defenders. Good vision, elusiveness and acceleration with the ball in his hands. Talented returner who shows no hesitancy in attacking holes.

Rang and I are pretty much seeing the same thing when we watch Ellington play. Ball skills, body control and acceleration stand out time after time.

Rang then tackled his weaknesses:

Short. Wasn't asked to run a full route-tree with the Gamecocks and as such is a bit of a project in this regard. Relies on his burst and athleticism to get open and will freelance to do so, leaving his quarterback in the difficult position of having to predict when he'll make his breaks. Extends his arms but doesn't block with passion despite his stout frame.

Again, his height and rawness are concerns. In general, taller receivers tend to perform better than shorter receivers in the NFL, but there are dozens of exceptions. Ellington has the speed, quickness, strength and athleticism to be an exception.

ESPN's Todd McShay had Ellington on his list of best picks of the draft. ESPN's Mel Kiper explained that the pick was great value on air, and he wrote after the draft, "Ellington isn't a far cry from Brandin Cooks, but he went 86 picks later."

NFL.com's Mike Mayock praised the pick, stating, "Think of a bigger Ace Sanders, who came out of same university. He's quicker than fast, and can help you in the return game." 

Lastly, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller lauded the pick in the video below:

 

Fit with the 49ers

Despite all of the scout praise, the reality is Ellington has a tough road ahead. 

With Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson taking the first three wide receiver spots, Ellington isn't likely to see the field much on offense. 

Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Quinton Patton (above) and Bruce Ellington are part of a deep 49ers receiver corps.

His first goal should be to secure the No. 4 spot on the 49ers wide receiver depth chart, and even that is no easy task with 2013 fourth-round pick Quinton Patton, 2011 first-round pick Jon Baldwin and veteran Brandon Lloyd vying for that role. 

If he outperforms Patton, Baldwin and Lloyd in training camp, he'll probably see a handful of offensive snaps per game by subbing in when one of the top three needs a breather. 

Even if one of the three gets hurt, Ellington isn't likely to play a majority of the offensive snaps because the Niners are a run-first team that do not feature three-WR sets prominently. 

However, Ellington has a shot at becoming San Francisco's kickoff and punt returner. 

As of now, that job belongs to LaMichael James. On May 9, Trent Baalke told reporters the 49ers "don't feel an urgency to go out and replace LaMichael" despite the fact that he's publicly complained about his role with the team. Baalke added this (via CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco):

(We’re) very excited about what he brings. First year as a punt returner averaging over 10 yards a return. Competed at a blue level as a punt returner for us, and would expect him to only get better in his second year of doing it.

With their first pick of Day 3, the Niners naturally took Ellington, one of the most dynamic returners left in the draft. That being said, I don't think Baalke is completely lying to us with the above quote. He's just keeping his options open.

James did perform well in his first year returning punts. He didn't lose a fumble, but he also muffed an easy catch against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, which could have easily been disastrous. 

From my eye, James doesn't look comfortable doing the job. He only had 14 punt returns in his collegiate career. 

I'm sure Baalke and Jim Harbaugh know this. They know James is explosive in space, but do they trust him to handle the return duties without committing a turnover or two?

Who will be San Francisco's first-string punt returner?

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As I noted here, I believe James will get cut as long as Ellington shows he can handle the return responsibilities in practice. But if Ellington is shaky, the 49ers will be forced to keep James, who would be their fifth running back on the 53-man roster.

It seems unlikely the Niners would have five running backs and six wide receivers when Week 1 of the regular season rolls around. In other words, if Ellington doesn't outperform James as a returner and also gets outplayed as a receiver by Patton and Lloyd, Baldwin or Osgood, he could be demoted to the practice squad (and likely poached by another team). 

When Rang compared Ellington to Randall Cobb, he probably anticipated the former South Carolina receiver blooming into such a player after learning for a year or two. Will he have that time to develop? Or will the Niners cut or trade him to keep players who are more likely to excel in 2014 but have less long-term potential?

More than likely, they'll keep Ellington because of said potential. But he'd make their decision easier if he proves to be a quick study both in learning the offense and becoming a special teams ace.

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