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Does free agency or the draft hold the 49ers’ wide receiver of the future?

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49ers Wide Receiver Draft Free Agency
© Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers are in the market for a wide receiver this offseason. Should the 49ers use free agency or the draft to land their wide receiver of the future?

 

Now that the San Francisco 49ers have their quarterback of the future in Jimmy Garoppolo, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan will likely pivot to finding their wide receiver of the future — either via free agency, the 2018 NFL draft, or both.

The advantage of obtaining talent in free agency lies in the information gleaned over a player’s four years in the league; you’re signing a known quantity — but for this, you pay a heavy price. Wide receiver Jarvis Landry translated his 400 catches and 4000 yards into an approximately $16 million franchise tender in 2018, although questions remain regarding who the slot receiver will play for next season. Fellow 2014 draftee Allen Robinson — if he avoids the franchise tag — will surely garner top dollar on the open market.

Even if Robinson is franchised, there will be other viable options in free agency, because the 2014 NFL Draft was the year of the wide receiver. In 2014, five receivers were drafted in the first round, and seven more were selected in the second, and all but one — Cody Latimer — are considered hits to varying degrees. Productive first-rounders like Odell Beckham and Mike Evans will be locked up this season via their fifth-year options, but others like Sammy Watkins and Jordan Matthews will likely hit the market.

Since the 2014 receiver class was so immediately productive, NFL teams predictably overreacted in 2015, drafting six wide receivers in the first round of the draft. The bust rate in 2015 was considerably higher in the early rounds, led by first-rounders Kevin White and Breshad Perriman, who have combined for 64 total catches in their three years in the league.

General managers have slowly come to their senses, drafting four first-round receivers in 2016, and then three in 2017, but although these young receivers still have room to grow, few early-round picks have lived up to their draft position. That’s not to say that there haven’t been wide receiver hits in the draft, and with undrafted free agents — but the top of the draft wasn’t as fruitful as teams expected.

Take the Minnesota Vikings, who drafted wide receiver Laquon Treadwell in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft, just three years after trading up into the first round to select receiver and return-specialist Cordarrelle Patterson. In 2017, the Vikings had a deep playoff run, partially thanks to the play of their two top receivers — neither of which were their two former first-round picks. Patterson watched the 2017 playoffs from home as an Oakland Raider, after being relegated to mostly special-teams duties. Treadwell — who is still searching for that elusive first touchdown — played third-fiddle in Minnesota to undrafted free agent Adam Thielen and fifth-rounder Stefon Diggs.

Although this year’s wide-receiver draft class isn’t the strongest, there is likely a top-tier receiver — and a number of consistent starters — to be found, and they won’t all be first-day selections. So, how can we tell which college receivers are most likely to excel at the next level? We have next month’s NFL Combine, which will open a window into a prospect’s measurables, but we can also analyze both the film and the statistics from each receiver’s college career.

Next, we’ll take a look at which college stats are indicators of wide receiver success in the NFL, and how the 2018 NFL Draft prospects — specifically those linked to the San Francisco 49ers – measure up.

Chris Wilson is the Lead Writer for Locked on 49ers, a FanRag Sports network partner. You may have seen Chris’ work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at FanSided, NinerNoise, 49erswebzone, Insidethe49 and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.

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