San Francisco 49ers: Full Position Breakdown and Depth Chart at Wide Receiver
The 49ers were 30th in the NFL in passing last season, thanks to injuries to players like Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton and a general lack of depth behind them. The end result saw the 49ers finish with an average of only 186 yards per game through the air. The nadir came against the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, when the 49ers were held to only 46 total passing yards, their worst total since 2005.
Gone, however, are Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and Marlon Moore. In are rookie Bruce Ellington, ex-Buffalo Bill Stevie Johnson and former 49er Brandon Lloyd. The revamped receiver unit has been turning heads already, with NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks rating it as the fourth best in the NFL before they even take a snap.
According to Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, quarterback Colin Kapernick has raved about the new arrivals, saying that he’s “very excited about the new targets…a lot of weapons on this field now.”
Stevie Johnson one-upped Kaepernick, saying that, “Right now...we’re all ones. The defense has gotta pick their poison, whether they’re going to double-team Anquan, whether they’re going to double-team Crab, Vernon (Davis), me, Q.P. is coming in – you gotta pick your poison.”
While the 49ers only used three wide receivers on 21 percent of plays last year, by far least in the NFL, the revamped receiving group should lead to the team to at least approaching the 21st century—51.2 percent of all plays in the NFL last season had “11” personnel—one running back, one tight end and three receivers.
While the 49ers don’t look to turn into a pass-happy offense anytime soon, we should see more of the passing game in 2014.
There aren’t too many spots to be won on the depth chart; past performance, contractual obligations and recent draft capital spent have essentially earned five players roster spots, leaving only a couple spots remaining for the rest of the players who will start training camp. Will Lloyd earn one of those slots, or will the 49ers go with a younger player who can contribute on special teams? Who will earn the third and fourth receiver slots?
Let’s break down the current depth chart at wide receiver as we eagerly await the beginning of the 2014 season.
10. Devon Wylie
2011 (Fresno State): 56 receptions, 716 yards, 1 touchdown
2012 (Kansas City): 6 receptions, 53 yards, 0 touchdowns
2013 (Five different teams): 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
The 49ers added Devon Wylie to their practice squad last season, essentially as depth at the returner position after Kyle Williams was released.
Wylie has never lived up to his fourth-round draft status, and was released by the Kansas City Chiefs after only one season.
Wylie’s value is only on special teams at this point in his career. In 2012 with the Chiefs, Wylie returned nine kicks for 191 yards, and he was working on punt returns with the 49ers during OTAs.
Even then, however, the 49ers have better options on the roster than Wylie to return kicks. LaMichael James handled the duties at the end of 2013, although his roster spot is far from being a lock. Rookie Bruce Ellington also has experience returning kicks, and he’s essentially guaranteed to make the team in 2014.
The most likely scenario has Wylie returning to the practice squad in 2014; it would take quite a few injuries and disappointments for him to significantly climb the depth chart.
He won’t make the 53-man roster.
9. Kassim Osgood
Judged strictly as a receiver, Osgood has essentially no value to the 2014 49ers. In his 11 year career, he only has 45 receptions; the last time he reached double-digit receptions in a season was back in 2004 in San Diego.
Osgood hasn’t stuck around for over a decade for nothing, however. Osgood is one of the top special teams players in the league, having appeared in 14 games as a gunner for San Francisco last season. The team opted to re-sign him this offseason to a one-year deal.
Osgood won’t make the team as a receiver, but very well could as a special-teams ace. Osgood’s challenges come from several different angles.
First of all, the 49ers now have a deeper receiving corps. Even though Osgood would be kept for his special teams value and not his receiving ability, could the 49ers really justify keeping seven receivers on their 53-man roster? Osgood’s roster spot might be better spent on a player who can contribute on offense or defense.
Secondly, the 49ers recently re-signed Blake Costanzo, and they already have Bubba Ventrone and C.J. Spillman on the roster as special-teams aces. Lawrence Okoye has been impressing on special teams, as well.
With so much depth at the receiving corps, the 49ers might be better off keeping special teams aces at other positions; keeping Spillman as a fourth safety, for example, would have more value off of special teams than Osgood as a seventh receiver.
In my initial 53-man projection, I had Osgood clinging on to the sixth receiver slot, but the revival of Brandon Lloyd brings that into doubt. You can’t count Osgood out, as a decade-plus survivor in the NFL, but his road may be an uphill one.
8. David Reed
2011 (Baltimore): 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns
2012 (Baltimore): 5 receptions, 66 yards, 0 touchdowns
2013 (Indianapolis): 1 reception, 2 yards, 0 touchdowns
David Reed was signed to a future contract after spending most of his career on the fringes of the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts. This gives San Francisco the opportunity to kick the tires on the receiver, and see if he’s capable of at least clinging to the margins of their roster.
So far, there’s been nothing much to say about Reed during the OTAs or other offseason activities. With Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson and Quinton Patton all missing time during OTAs with various nicks and scratches, Reed’s had the opportunity to get plenty of reps in practice, but so far there has been no buzz about him whatsoever.
With the 49ers so depleted during OTAs that quarterback Josh Johnson had to line up to catch passes, Reed has been essentially a warm body in practice.
His odds of making the final roster are very slim, barring injuries to other receivers during training camp and preseason.
7. Jonathan Baldwin
2011 (Kansas City): 21 receptions, 254 yards, 1 touchdown
2012 (Kansas City): 20 receptions, 325 yards, 1 touchdown
2013 (San Francisco): 3 receptions, 28 yards, 0 touchdowns
The 49ers acquired Jon Baldwin last season in a trade of underperforming first-round picks. They sent A.J. Jenkins to Kansas City for Baldwin in the hopes that the change of scenery would help the former Pitt Panther.
Did it work? Not particularly. Baldwin was last active in Week 12 and essentially never distinguished himself despite San Francisco’s need for production at the position. Baldwin took a paycut this offseason to avoid being released, but the trade for Stevie Johnson and drafting Bruce Ellington pretty much put the writing on the wall for Baldwin.
Bill Williamson of ESPN says that Baldwin has “virtually no chance to make the roster,” even if he were to convert to tight end, which is right now a greater position of need for San Francisco. At 6’4”, 225 pounds, Baldwin’s definitely got an element of size that could help him, but that in and of itself is no likely enough for him make the final roster.
Baldwin does have one advantage over Reed and Wylie: He has actually produced in the NFL—albeit not up to the standards you’d expect of a first-round pick—and that could pay dividends for the big receiver should there be some injuries at the position during preseason. If the Niners got into an emergency situation and needed another receiver to fill in, Baldwin’s probably the player they would turn to.
As it stands, however, he’d need to have a lights-out training camp and preseason to have a hope of making the 53-man roster, and that just doesn’t seem very plausible.
6. Bruce Ellington
2011 (South Carolina): 17 receptions, 211 yards, 1 touchdown
2012 (South Carolina): 40 receptions, 600 yards, 7 touchdowns
2013 (South Carolina): 49 receptions, 775 yards, 8 touchdowns
A fourth-round pick out of South Carolina, Ellington is the first player to have an essentially guaranteed roster spot.
Ellington ran a 4.45 40-yard dash at the combine and, a former college basketball player, he plays taller than his 5’9” frame thanks to his great leaping ability. He’s tough, has good hands and excellent acceleration. Had he been six inches taller, he may have been a top-40 pick.
It’s unlikely, however, that we’ll see him much on the field in 2014. There are enough experienced players between him and the starting lineup that he’ll likely only make cameos as a wide receiver this season. That’s fine; he’s still developing as a player and could use the practice time to become a better route-runner.
Where he could have an impact in 2014, however, is on kick returns. Ellington averaged 22.7 yards per kickoff return in college, and has straight-line speed that few on the team can match. Given that Ellington's a former track star, it’s easy to imagine him taking over for LaMichael James as the key returner, saving the team a roster spot.
Ellington’s got the work ethic to continue to excel in the long term; this will be the first season in which he’s not splitting time as a member of the basketball team. He has the potential in time to become a long-term impact slot receiver.
We won’t see that in 2014, but Ellington shouldn’t have to worry about making the roster. His rookie season will be spent gaining experience in practice at the bottom of the receiving depth chart.
5. Brandon Lloyd
2011 (Denver and St. Louis): 70 receptions, 966 yards, 5 touchdowns
2012 (New England): 74 receptions, 911 yards, 4 touchdowns
2013: Out of football
The surprise of OTAs has been the resurrection of Brandon Lloyd.
Lloyd sat out the entire 2013 season after being released by the New England Patriots for salary considerations, but the year off hasn’t seemed to harm him too much.
Lloyd has been hooking up with Colin Kaepernick in the red zone repeatedly during OTAs, taking advantage of the absence of the team's starting receivers to build up a good chemistry with the starting QB. Lloyd's been the most consistently impressive player throughout the OTAs, possibly throwing a wrench into the front office's decision-making process.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has been raving about Lloyd’s performance up to this point (per CSNBayArea.com):
Seeing really good things. Seeing surge off the line of scrimmage. He’s got ability to burst at the top of his routes. Runs excellent routes. Acrobatic type of catches that he’s able to make. Really good hands. So far, really good. It does not seem like a guy that’s had a layoff from football for a year.
With the addition of Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington, Lloyd seemed at first like an afterthought and a long-shot to make the final roster. However, with his performance so far, he’s not only put himself into a position to make the team, but a position to actually challenge for the third wide receiver position.
I don’t think we’ll see tons of Lloyd in 2014, but as it stands now, he’s done enough to earn a spot on the final roster. We’ll have to see how he holds up when pads start coming on in training camp and the preseason, but for now, Lloyd’s earned serious consideration.
4. Quinton Patton
2011 (Louisiana Tech): 79 receptions, 1,202 yards, 11 touchdowns
2012 (Louisiana Tech): 104 receptions, 1,392 yards, 13 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 3 receptions, 34 yards, 0 touchdowns
The arrival last year of Quinton Patton, a fourth-round pick in 2013, was accompanied by a lot of excitement. But the impact he was expected to make during his rookie season was disrupted by injuries.
He missed the start of training camp last season with a broken finger and then was sidelined for a longer stretch when he broke his foot in Week 4. At the moment, he’s suffering from yet another foot injury, though his CT scan came up clean.
When he has been healthy, however, Patton’s flashed talent. He had some key receptions in Week 17 against Arizona and a key third-down conversion against Carolina in the playoffs. He’s viewed by the team as a future starter; with Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin’s long-term future in doubt, the future could come as early as 2015.
For those of you on Patton’s bandwagon, however, you might want to slow down on thinking he'll break out this season. Coach Harbaugh issued a bit of a challenge to Patton in the offseason (per CSNBayArea.com):
There were definitely times when we were just not getting guys open for [Colin Kaepernick]. I think it’s more somebody stepping up and being that next guy. We’ve had a lot of people try, competing for that spot, whether it’s Quinton Patton, somebody step and be that next guy to make plays for our football team…a third guy who can get open and make plays, another option for the quarterback to go to, a chance to attack all areas of the field. A playmaker. That’s what we’re looking for.
Bringing in Bruce Ellington and Stevie Johnson in the offseason means Patton is going to have to battle for his position on the roster. While he shouldn’t have too much trouble making the final 53, he could finish anywhere from third to fifth on the depth chart.
If he can stay healthy, Patton’s future seems bright. He has good route-running skills, solid hands, strong ability after the catch, a willingness to block—everything you’re looking for from a receiver. He just needs to stay healthy for a full season in order for him to climb higher up the depth chart.
3. Stevie Johnson
2011 (Buffalo): 76 receptions, 1,004 yards, 7 touchdowns
2012 (Buffalo): 79 receptions, 1,046 yards, 6 touchdowns
2013 (Buffalo): 52 receptions, 597 yards, 3 touchdowns
Fans may have been confused when the 49ers didn’t spend their first-round pick on a receiver like Marqise Lee or Jordan Matthews, assuming the team would bolster their receiver position with a star draftee.
Instead, the 49ers acquired a previously established number one receiver in Stevie Johnson. Before his injury-plagued 2013, Johnson had put up three consecutive thousand-yard seasons, despite being hampered by inconsistent or poor quarterback play while with the Buffalo Bills.
Johnson’s numbers should bounce back somewhat with Colin Kaepernick throwing him the ball, especially with the other teams' top corners covering Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. A healthy Johnson against a nickel cornerback should make for some glaring mismatches.
Johnson does have inconsistent hands and suffers from the occasional drop, which lowers him to the third receiver on the depth chart. However, he has the best footwork of the three top receivers on the roster. He is incredibly sound from a technique standpoint, and he can create space with just his precise route-running. While he’s not the over-the-top threat the 49ers were looking for, he is going to be a serious upgrade over the quality of third receiver the 49ers were trotting out last year.
I expect him to win the battle with Patton and Lloyd for the third spot; he has more recent success than Lloyd and more experience than Patton. That’s the battle to really watch during training camp, however—which one will get those third receiver reps, and how often will the team use three-receiver sets.
2. Anquan Boldin
2011 (Baltimore): 57 receptions, 887 yards, 3 touchdowns
2012 (Baltimore): 65 receptions, 921 yards, 4 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 85 receptions, 1,179 yards, 7 touchdowns
The single greatest offseason move the 49ers made last year was trading a sixth-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens for the services of Boldin. When Michael Crabtree went down with an injury, Boldin responded with possibly the best season of his career, carrying the offense despite facing constant double-teams.
The 49ers responded by giving Boldin a two-year contract extension, a lot for an aging receiver, but more than deserved based on Boldin’s play last year. At times he showed that he can still physically dominate corners. He never relied too much on speed, so even at age 33, a reduction in speed did not bring with it the expected decrease in production. With the return of Crabtree for a full year, Boldin should have even more opportunities to produce in 2014.
Boldin should return to a secondary target with Crabtree back, if for no other reason than his advanced age. In all likelihood, he doesn’t have too many more seasons left in him, but there’s no reason why he can’t be productive yet again in 2014.
Could this be the first time the 49ers have had multiple 1,000 yard receivers since 1998, when Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens were catching passes? The 49ers would have to throw the ball a lot more, but they have the talent on board to succeed.
This two-year deal is probably the end of Boldin’s time as a starting receiver. By the time it expires in 2016, we might see Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington as Colin Kaepernick’s leading receivers. As long as he can perform like he did last season, however, Boldin will be a valuable member of the roster.
1. Michael Crabtree
2011 (San Francisco): 72 receptions, 874 yards, 4 touchdowns
2012 (San Francisco): 85 receptions, 1,105 yards, 9 touchdowns
2013 (San Francisco): 19 receptions, 284 yards, 1 touchdowns
There is very little doubt that Michael Crabtree will be the 49ers’ leading receiver in 2014, barring another injury.
The question is what do with him once the season is over.
Crabtree will be a free agent after the 2014 season, and the 49ers may find it difficult to squeeze him in under the salary cap. If he puts up another season like 2012, where he put up the greatest season for a 49ers receiver since the days of Terrell Owens, he might be asking for a deal like Brandon Marshall received, worth $10 million a season.
That would be almost impossible for the 49ers to squeeze under next year’s cap; if the value was more in the $8 million a year range, there might be enough salary-cap tricks to keep him under contract for another year.
So much depends on how he performs in 2014. Two years ago, Crabtree played in all 16 games, a feat he’s never duplicated. A healthy Crabtree is in that second tier of top receivers, right under the Calvin Johnsons and Brandon Marshalls of the world. An injured Crabtree is a drain on the salary cap.
While it’s certainly not a done deal, there are many indications that this might be the last season we see Crabtree in the red and gold. He looks set to test the free-agent market next year and, even in a loaded class, might just come down with an offer too high for the 49ers to match.
That can all wait for next offseason, however. This season, Crabtree will have every incentive to prove he’s an elite receiver, and that’s nothing but a plus for the team this year. Crabtree should return to form as the top receiver on the roster.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on twitter.