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The San Francisco 49ers wide receivers have absorbed their fair share of scrutiny in discussions regarding the team's potential this season. Many expected general manager Trent Baalke to draft a wide receiver early in this past April's draft, but that did not occur. The team waited until the 6th round to grab Aaron Burbridge from Michigan State, and also added Stanford's Devon Cajuste and California's Bryce Treggs as undrafted free agents. Treggs has since been sidelined with an MCL injury that's being described as week-to-week. The biggest wide receiver acquisition of this off season, Canadian Football League standout Eric Rogers, tore his ACL early in training camp and will spend the year rehabbing that injury.
With quarterback Colin Kaepernick making his preseason debut against Green Bay, it will be interesting to see whether or not that affects the performance of the wide receivers. Against the Houston Texans, quarterback Blaine Gabbert completed 4 of 10 passes for 63 yards. He was 1 of 5 when targeting wide receivers. The only completion to a wide receiver was a screen pass to Bruce Ellington. In the Week 2 game against the Broncos, Gabbert finished 6 of 9 for 69 yards. Again, only one of those pass completions went to a wide receiver, and it was another screen pass: this time to DeAndrew White, Ellington's replacement in the slot. He finished 1 of 2 on passes targeting wide receivers.
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So, in six series, over two preseason games, Gabbert has not completed a pass to a wide receiver that traveled beyond the line of scrimmage. Two completed screen passes are the extent of the involvement of the wide receivers in the offense over those two games. Are the wide receivers not getting separation and providing open targets? Is Gabbert's reputation for playing it safe and looking primarily for tight ends and running backs underneath causing him to miss open wide receivers? Those questions should be answered to some degree with the return of Kaepernick, who has always demonstrated a willingness to take shots down the field when they present themselves.
What appears to be clear about the 49ers group of receivers are the top four: Torrey Smith, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and Jerome Simpson. Behind them are the aforementioned rookies, along with a mixture of unproven, yet intriguing, prospects: DeAndre Smelter, DeAndrew White, Dres Anderson and DiAndre Campbell. Of that group, their size stands out as the most desirable attribute: all are at least 6 feet tall, and Smelter, Anderson and Campbell are 6'2". White has earned kudos for performing well in the difficult slot role during Ellington's recovery from a minor ankle injury sustained against the Houston Texans.
Prior to the Broncos game, Chip Kelly spoke candidly about this desire to see the young receivers demonstrate their ability on a more consistent basis. "What we do need to see is consistency. We haven't really seen a ton of that right now. We've seen them flash, which is awesome because you know what they can do, but it's being consistent not only on a daily basis but really, on a play-to-play basis, that you can count of them."
Of the more established veterans, Torrey Smith is the most entrenched in his position. Jerome Simpson, the elder statesman of the group has earned praise from his teammates for his energy and athleticism. "He has more energy than anyone on the field, every single day," Smith added. "He can run a 50-yard go route, sprint back, line up and be ready to do it again." Simpson was suspended for the first six games of the 2015 season and when he returned he was plagued by drops and inconsistent play.
Ellington seems to have the most upside and his teammates have echoed those sentiments in training camp. "Bruce Ellington, that's one guy that's hard to cover," 49ers cornerback Jimmy Ward said. "Bruce is very shifty, and he has great speed." This coaching staff seems to have embraced Ellington more than the prior two regimes and he seems poised to get his chance to finally realize his potential.
Patton is the wildcard of the bunch. During his three year career, he has spent most of his time backing up established veterans like Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Stevie Johnson. He has flashed potential, at times, but also committed blunders at important times when he was given a chance. The fact that Kelly and his coaching staff immediately elevated him into the role of starter means that they like what they've seen from him. Of all of the receivers, he would appear to have the biggest opportunity in front of him if he performs well enough to prove that he's worthy of the position.
The effectiveness of this group of receivers will not be determined based on one single preseason game. But with teams playing their starters for an extended period of time, this will be the group's greatest chance, up to this point, to prove that they can perform at a high level without the addition of a high-priced free agent or early-round draft pick.