Over the offseason, we break down each of the San Francisco 49ers’ position groups for the upcoming 2018 NFL season. In this edition, we break down the Niners’ wide receivers.
This is the third edition of our 49ers 2018 offseason positional breakdowns. Check out the first two articles here:
After replacing the San Francisco 49ers’ entire receiving corps last season, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan drafted two additional wide receivers to compete for spots on the team’s 2018 roster. Let’s take a look at each of the Niners’ 11 wideouts, beginning with the players most likely to make the 49ers’ final 53-man roster:
WR Pierre Garcon
Last year, the 49ers’ new No. 1 wide receiver Pierre Garcon was on his way to another 1,000-yard season before he sustained a season-ending neck injury in Week 8. Garcon didn’t have the opportunity to play with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017, but he should begin the upcoming season as the quarterback’s top option and starting split end, or X receiver. Garcon will cost the 49ers over $9 million in 2018 and over $8 million in 2019, before his cap number jumps to $11.3 million in 2020 — which will be a hefty price tag for a 34-year old wide receiver.
WR Marquise Goodwin
Marquise Goodwin had a breakout year in 2017, and was held just short of 1,000 receiving yards thanks to a vicious Week-17 hit from Rams safety Blake Countess, which resulted in a concussion for Goodwin, and an ejection for Countess. After being underutilized during his time with the Buffalo Bills, Goodwin flourished in his first year under Shanahan, and stepped seamlessly into the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver role after Garcon’s injury. After the season, San Francisco rewarded Goodwin with a three-year extension that will keep the wideout under contract until 2021. With the return of Garcon, Goodwin should start the 2018 season at his more-natural flanker, or Z receiver, position.
WR Trent Taylor
The San Francisco 49ers’ fifth-round draft pick Trent Taylor was an important part of the team’s offense in 2017 — particularly on third downs. Although Taylor only amassed 430 yards over the course of his rookie year, he quickly became the 49ers’ go-to third-down receiver, first for quarterback Brian Hoyer, and later for Garoppolo. Taylor makes up for his small stature with his short-area quickness out of the slot and on punt returns — although he will likely give up his special-teams role to one of the Niners’ incoming rookies. As a slot receiver, Taylor is a roster lock for the forseeable future, as the 49ers have the second-year player signed under an inexpensive rookie contract for three additional seasons.
WR Dante Pettis
One of the San Francisco 49ers’ options to replace Taylor on special teams is rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis, who holds the NCAA record for punt return touchdowns. Lynch and Shanahan moved up in the second round to draft the Washington product, who projects to be first 49ers receiver off the bench in 2018. With the ability to play all three receiver positions, Pettis will get his share of playing time this season, although it remains to be seen whether the wideout — who flourished as a No. 2 receiver in college — will become a true No. 1 wide receiver at the NFL level.
WR Kendrick Bourne
Undrafted free agent Kendrick Bourne was a somewhat surprising addition to the 49ers’ initial 53-man roster last season, and was inactive for five of the team’s first six games. However, once Bourne saw the field, he impressed, and likely played his way into a spot on team’s 2018 roster. At 6-foot-1, Bourne was the 49ers’ tallest receiver for the majority of 2017, and will likely be team’s tallest wideout again in 2018. With a year of experience under his belt, and added chemistry with Garoppolo, the 49ers hope Bourne takes a major step forward in his sophomore season.
WR Richie James
The San Francisco 49ers’ seventh-round selection — and Locked on 49ers host Brian Peacocks’ seventh-round shadow draft pick — Richie James will get the first crack at a roster spot as the team’s sixth wide receiver. James was extremely productive in college, averaging over 100 catches, nearly 1,500 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns over his first two college seasons. James is undersized for NFL standards, but plays big for his size — and what James lacks in size, he makes up for with his quickness and elusiveness in the open field. The former wildcat quarterback could be an interesting option for the 49ers out of the slot, and is certainly a player to watch during the preseason.
WR Aldrick Robinson
Aldrick Robinson had a disappointing 2017, amassing just 260 yards in his first season with the 49ers. Robinson had his share of opportunities throughout the season, as he played in each game, but a catch rate under 40 percent limited him to just 19 total receptions. Robinson was signed last season for his versatility and ability to play all three receiver positions, but his skill-set is somewhat redundant with the addition of Pettis. While it makes sense for the 49ers to part ways with the wide receiver before he turns 30 in September, Robinson is a “Shanahan Guy” — following the coach from Washington to Atlanta to San Francisco — so he’ll have an opportunity to land a roster spot, even though the team could potentially release him with minimal cap impact.
WR Aaron Burbridge
Aaron Burbridge missed all of 2017 due to a hamstring injury, after being productive on special teams as a rookie the previous season. Burbridge has limited experience on offense at the NFL level, after catching just seven passes in 2016. Running back Raheem Mostert was the 49ers’ special-teams ace in 2017; if Burbridge expects to take that job from Mostert in 2018, he will need to add value on offense, in addition to special teams.
WR Victor Bolden
Along with Bourne, Victor Bolden was an undrafted free agent last season, but Bolden was mostly relegated to kickoff returns after flashing as a returner last preseason. Unfortunately, Bolden was less effective during the regular season, and found himself inactive after Week 6. The return man and slot receiver was activated for four games after Garcon’s injury, but failed to log a reception over his rookie season. Entering the offseason, Bolden faced an uphill battle to make the final roster, and his chances diminished after the 49ers’ draft, as well as the NFL’s kickoff rule changes. However, the nail in Bolden’s coffin came in the form of a four-game suspension handed down from the NFL last month. Now, Bolden will have to truly shine during the preseason for a chance to play for the 49ers in 2018.
WR Steven Dunbar
With the signing of undrafted free agent Steven Dunbar, the 6-foot-3 University of Houston product is the 49ers’ tallest wide receiver. However, since size is not a priority for Shanahan at the receiver position, Dunbar — who lacks speed for a wideout — will need to excel at route running and contested catches. With just 11 total touchdowns in four NCAA seasons, Dunbar will only snag a late roster spot or a place on the practice squad if he quickly learns how to become a better NFL red-zone target than he was at the college level.
WR Max McCaffrey
Max McCaffrey began his NFL career as an undrafted free agent in 2016, but failed to make the Oakland Raiders’ final roster. McCaffrey jumped between teams and practice squads before the San Francisco 49ers signed the wide receiver off the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad last December. Since the receiver has just one catch over his two-year NFL career, McCaffrey is a long-shot to make the team, but he’ll have the opportunity to make a name for himself over the preseason, particularly late in games and during the Niners’ final preseason contest.
Three Niners who need to step up to contain Mahomes
Patrick Mahomes is the talk of the NFL, and why not? The second-year Kansas City signal-caller has turned in an historic performance over the first two weeks of the 2018 campaign, firing 10 touchdown strikes against zero turnovers while moving his unit up and down the field at will and leading the Chiefs to a league-high 80 points.
So, who needs to step up if the 49ers are to stand any chance of derailing Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable 23-year-old quarterback? After watching DeForest Buckner and Richard Sherman compete at their typical All-Pro levels through the first two games, we’re operating under the assumption that they’ll keep it up in Week 3, so both players are exempt from this list. Instead, here are the top three defenders that need to take their game to the next level if the Niners are going to slow down Mahomes.
LB Reuben Foster
San Francisco’s resident human missile makes his highly anticipated return to the gridiron following his two-game suspension, and not a moment too soon.
Though he’s suited up for just 10 games since being drafted 31st overall in last year’s draft, Reuben Foster has already shown himself to be a rare breed: A ferocious hitter whose fearless style of play jumps off the screen to even the most casual of football observers. Foster brings the swagger, and it rubs off on his defensive mates. Need proof? Look at Week 1 against Carolina last season, and note the stark difference in the unit from when he was on the field to after he exited with an injury.
49er Faithful have salivated at the idea of seeing Foster and breakout rookie Fred Warner on the field at the same time, and San Francisco’s youthful linebackers will be put to the test in their first game together.
Foster is just as proficient dropping back in coverage as he is laying a punishing hit on the ballcarrier, and regardless of his assignment on Sunday, he’ll have a huge say in whether San Francisco can stop the explosive Mahomes.
DE Solomon Thomas
With DeForest Buckner almost certain to command significant attention from Kansas City’s offensive line, San Francisco will need someone other than just their stud defensive tackle to supply the heat (so far this season, Buckner has 3.5 sacks; the rest of the team has 1.5 sacks). Enter Solomon Thomas.
The third overall pick of last year’s draft, Thomas has just three career sacks and is still looking for his first of 2018 (though he did generate four quarterback hurries while playing on only 47 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps last week), and there’s no better time to accomplish that feat than during a matchup against a quarterback who’s picked defenses apart for two weeks and seemingly can’t miss his target.
While Thomas’ role has become a point of contention among fans and those who cover the team, the second-year man will undoubtedly see an uptick in snaps if he generates a bit more pressure, and that process began last week. But it’s one thing to hurry the quarterback; it’s quite another to make contact, affect passes and drop him behind the line of scrimmage, and if Thomas can do so, then San Francisco’s chances of forcing a mistake out of the young quarterback will grow exponentially.
Mahomes threw more touchdowns (six) than incompletions (five) last week, so knocking him around a bit will be imperative to disrupting his rhythm. And while it’s almost always the quarterback who scores the headlines, Mahomes’ blistering start to the season is due in no small part to his stout offensive line, which has permitted just two sacks through two games, despite the signal-caller already chucking 55 passes.
Thomas can lineup virtually anywhere on the defensive line, and he’ll need to bring is his A-game if he’s to fight his way through and around Pro Football Focus’ seventh-ranked unit through two games. Seeing as how Kansas City starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz have only permitted six pressures in two games, this could be the week for San Francisco to see what Thomas can do with some extensive playing time from the interior, where he’s at his best as a pass-rusher anyway.
CB Ahkello Witherspoon
Simply put, Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily in Week 2.
The second-year corner, who flashed enticing upside at the end of last season, couldn’t keep up with Detroit’s prolific passing attack, and he was victimized for a pair of touchdowns while yielding eight receptions for 99 yards and taking a pair of penalties on 13 targets.
Still, it’s important to remember that two games is an extremely small sample size, and he fared far better against the Vikings in Week 1 (71.0 grade from PFF) than he did against the Lions in Week 2 (27.9 grade).
The good news for Witherspoon? He’ll likely spend some time covering fourth-year man Chris Conley, who hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since being taken by Kansas City in the third round of the 2015 draft. Even with the ever-accurate Mahomes racking up 582 yards through the air, Conley has just three grabs for 32 yards and a touchdown in the first two games. He’s also lost a fumble.
If Witherspoon finds himself matched up against Tyreek Hill or Sammy Watkins, he’ll undoubtedly have his work cut out for him, but such a challenge would also give him every opportunity to show that last week was a fluke, a small blip on the radar of what has been a very promising start to his NFL career. With the second-year man coming off a subpar outing against the Lions and teams still shying away from Richard Sherman, Witherspoon is all but certain to be thrust into the limelight on Sunday.
If the Niners get the same confident, physical cornerback they saw at the end of last season, then Witherspoon should at least hold his own, even against the prolific Mahomes-led aerial attack, which comes into the Week 3 clash firing on all cylinders.
Podcast: Friday Mailbag
Podcast for Friday, September 21
- Opening up the listener mailbag
- Hopes and fears for Sunday in Kansas City
- Roles for LBs Reuben Foster, Fred Warner and Malcolm Smith
- Ahkello Witherspoon will bounce back
- Keys to the game vs Chiefs
Podcast: 49ers PFF Breakdown with Jeff Deeney
Podcast for Thursday, September 20
- Guest: Jeff Deeney, 49ers media correspondent for Pro Football Focus
- Injury report
- Reuben Foster activated
- Matt Breida, Deforest Buckner and Richard Sherman highlight 49ers early season grades
- Passing game could get right in Week 3 vs Kansas City defense
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