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San Francisco 49ers: What Can Be Expected from Brandon Lloyd?

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San Francisco 49ers: What Can Be Expected from Brandon Lloyd?
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

One of the biggest storylines coming out of the San Francisco 49ers' OTAs is the apparent revitalization of receiver Brandon Lloyd.

Lloyd, who missed the 2013 season, is attempting to make a comeback with the team that drafted him.  Rather than catch passes last year, Lloyd instead dodged zombies in a movie called After Effect.

Now Lloyd’s attempting to have his career rise from the dead, and initial signs are surprisingly promising.  Chris Biderman of NinersDigest has called Lloyd the "surprise of the offseason," as he’s been the most consistent receiver in training camp up to this point.  He doesn’t have the rust you’d expect out of a player who missed the entire season.

Jim Harbaugh raved about Lloyd as well, per a club transcript:

“Seeing surge off the line of scrimmage. He’s got the ability to burst at the top of his routes,” Harbaugh said, according to a transcript from the club. “Runs excellent routes. Acrobatic type of catches that he’s able to make. Really good hands.  So far really good. No, it does not seem like a guy that’s had a layoff from football for a year.”

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press/Associated Press
Lloyd has been lighting it up in OTAs so far.

Of course, this comes with a couple of grains of salt.  First off, during their last open OTAs, the 49ers were missing Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton and Stevie Johnson.  It’s a lot easier to look like the best receiver in practice when the top four receivers aren’t around.

Secondly, OTAs aren’t regular games.  You don’t get any live contact until training camp, so while Lloyd’s looking good now, it remains to be seen how he’ll respond once pads go on in July.

Still, it’s certainly not a bad thing that Lloyd’s looking good in practice.  Remember, Lloyd was cut by New England after 2012 because he had a $3 million option bonus coming to him, not because he was ineffective.  At age 31, Lloyd managed 74 touchdowns for 911 yards and four touchdowns.  That’s actually the 46th-most yards at that age ever.

In addition, a year off isn’t just a year without practice—it’s a year without being hit.  It’s a year without injuries, and a year without the wear and tear of an NFL season.  It’s possible that a year of healing up could actually be good for Lloyd in the long run.

Lloyd turns 33 in July, which is far from being washed up for an NFL receiver.  Anquan Boldin was 33 last season, and both Steve Smith and Reggie Wayne were older than that and still contributed.

What might Lloyd be able to provide in 2014?  Let’s look at some comparable players.

Six receivers had similar age-31 seasons to Lloyd’s 2012 campaign, in terms of number of receptions and receiving yards.  Of the six, one was Jason Witten last season, so that’s not useful for projecting forward.  By looking at the other five, however, we might figure out what Lloyd might have left in the tank.

Age-33 Seasons for Comparable Receivers
Player Year Team Rec Yds TD
Art Monk 1990 Washington 68 770 5
Joe Horn 2005 New Orleans 49 654 1
Isaac Bruce 2005 St. Louis 36 525 3
Lavernues Coles 2010 NY Jets 0 0 0
Jabar Gaffney 2013 None 0 0 0

Pro Football Reference

At the bottom of the list you have Jabar Gaffney and Laveranues Coles, who were essentially done after their age-32 seasons.  Gaffney was waived by the Miami Dolphins in the middle of his age-32 season, and subsequently suspended by the NFL.  He did not manage to catch on with another team and spent the 2013 season out of football.

Coles was actually on an active roster for part of his age-33 season, being signed, released and re-signed by the New York Jets.  He never actually appeared in a game for them, however, serving just as depth and an emergency option that never had to be used.  This was about what I assumed Lloyd would be in his attempt to re-join the league: an experienced pair of hands in case massive injuries struck the team, but not a serious contender for a roster spot.

The other three receivers on the list, however, found themselves as consistent contributors for several years past their age-33 seasons.

Monk, a Hall of Fame receiver for Washington, still had 67 starts at receiver in him and was a productive starter for at least another three years.  He even had 1,000 yards receiving season in 1991 on one of the greatest teams in NFL history.  He’s by far the most favorable comparison on this list.

Horn was coming off of a Pro Bowl season in 2004, but that was really the beginning of the end of his career.  Horn signed a big contract extension after that season, but never could live up to that and was released two years later.  As a third receiver, his reception totals wouldn’t have been bad, but Horn actually started 13 games in 2005.  Football Outsiders ended up ranking him as the third-worst receiver, with only a 48 percent catch rate.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Isaac Bruce was still contributing for San Francisco in his late 30s.

Finally, you have the ageless Isaac Bruce, who was still starting games in 2009 at age 37.  Bruce’s age-33 season was a down year as well, but that was due to a foot injury, not reduced ability.  Bruce had a 1,000-yard season the very next year and continued to be a viable starter first for the Rams and later the 49ers, where he started 22 games in 2008 and 2009.  He’s another borderline Hall of Fame candidate.

I think the player who best encapsulates what Lloyd can bring to the 49ers this season is Horn.  With a year away from the game, I find it hard to believe Lloyd will jump right back into the swing of things with a fantastic season like Monk or Bruce; they’re simply higher-quality players than Lloyd ever has been.

At the same time, however, Lloyd has been impressive enough in camp to make me think he could do something in the 2014 season.  He looks sharper than Coles or Gaffney did during their age-33 preseasons.  That leaves Horn, who would have been fine in 2005 if he hadn't been asked to start.

Lloyd probably won't be asked to start; he's likely going to struggle to make the team based simply on the numbers game.  Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson are locks to make the team based on their recent production, as is fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington.

Will Brandon Lloyd make the initial 53-man roster?

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That leaves only one or two spots for receivers.  Lloyd’s battling with Jonathan Baldwin, Quinton Patton and Chuck Jacobs for a receiving role with the team in 2014.  All of them are younger than Lloyd, and all would be more likely to contribute on special teams than Lloyd is at this point.

I think Lloyd still has an uphill battle to climb to make the roster, but it looks a lot more feasible now than it did two weeks ago.

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on twitter.

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