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Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

Handwriting on the Wall: Wide Receivers Jalen Hurd and Richie James, Jr. Could Be Looming Roster Casualties

Don Atkinson
Aug 19, 2021 at 11:37 PM--

It's been just one training camp and a single preseason game, but the urge to make lasting personnel decisions in the present is powerful as actual games await ahead. Life in the NFL often moves at lightning speed, and perhaps that's how it should be. After the 49ers' first game of the 2021 season, albeit one that counts for nothing, fans and analysts alike are racing to make judgments about the quarterback situation for the 49ers.

But the quarterback room isn't the only place under the microscope for the 49ers as the regular season approaches. Near the head of that list is the ongoing evaluation of the team's wide receiver group. And coming off that largely inconsequential 19-16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last week, there is a growing sense that the 49ers may soon be moving off of two players who earlier on might have been considered roster locks.

Third-year receiver Jalen Hurd involuntarily sat out Saturday's game against the Chiefs under the widely held assumption that head coach Kyle Shanahan would give him significant playing time this weekend against the Los Angeles Chargers. Up until now, Hurd had been on the slow and careful track back to playing after two full seasons of inactivity due to injury. But when morning practices opened yesterday in Southern California, Hurd was once again out of pads and clearly out of action on the rehab field with other players nursing injuries.

According to reports offered up by Shanahan, knee tendinitis is to blame for Hurd's setback. Careful progress might have been the right philosophy as camp opened, but the reality is that there has been no progress at all with Hurd, and it's become painfully clear that the third-year wideout isn't in any condition to play repetitive snaps anytime soon.

For all his potential, the only place Hurd is moving swiftly toward is the far edge of his NFL career.

As much of a dismal feature Hurd has been to the 49ers' plans for a medical bounce-back after an injury-riddled 2020 campaign, his tanking for the third year in a row is hardly a surprise. Everyone in the 49ers organization, as well as the fan base, knew Hurd's physical health was suspect, but the widespread hope was that he could get to where he needed to be and take control of a number 3 wideout spot at minimum. After a number of officially unanswered questions about his degree of preparedness, however, and a spate of missed practices, it seemed that the hype over Hurd's return was destined to crash and burn. Hurd is now officially a scratch for Sunday's game against the Chargers, which leaves him just one game against the Las Vegas Raiders in two weeks to prove he can actually play football. Not an easy hill to climb, and it could force the 49ers into making a painful choice about Hurd's spot on the roster soon.

As tough as it might be to address Hurd's circumstances, the fate of wide receiver Richie James doesn't present the team with a much more attractive set of choices. On paper at least, James should be a brilliant fit for this roster. He's got the speed that some of the 49ers' larger bodied receivers don't possess, and he's a decent route runner who can get separation from defenders. And being in his fourth year in San Francisco, James knows Shanahan's playbook well.

James has also proven he can take control when given a starting role. An early November game against the Packers last season (9 catches for 184 yards, 1 touchdown) showed what James can really do when he gets rolling. But the attention he got from that performance was short-circuited by the 49ers injury-induced 6-10 record, and James sadly went a bit numb-handed through training camp this year. His drops in practice have been more than highlighted standing against the sure-handed performances of recently added veterans Trent Sherfield and Mohamed Sanu.

To complicate things for James even more, the 49ers snatched up return specialist Nsimba Webster late last month when the L.A. Rams placed the latter on waivers. Webster jumped on his opportunities immediately with a decent camp performance and a couple of noteworthy fourth quarter plays last week in the team's loss to Kansas City. Webster's kick returning abilities and special teams prowess make him strong competition for James, though Webster has still not yet proven his value as a wideout. At one time, James' speed and elusiveness also made him a promising kick returner, but it's been some time since he cranked off a big return that impressed.

Like Hurd, James is a puzzle, but in a different way. Hurd's battle is with his own body, and his chronic injuries have made him a ghost on the roster for the past two seasons. James has had his injuries as well, but he's been fundamentally ready and available (he's missed a fairly routine 8 out of 48 games since being drafted in 2018) in the three years he's been on the roster. But being stuck on the lower portion of the depth chart, James has had just 59 targets as a wide receiver.

James' kick returns during his tenure average 23 yards per attempt (on 47 returns), with punt returns averaging a little over 7 yards a try. But his chances were reduced in 2020 when Shanahan started using other players (Jerick McKinnon, Dante Pettis and River Cracraft, among others) to handle the ball on special teams. His touches at all returns combined fell to a paltry 10, an 80% drop from his previous seasons.

In the end, James seems to be the victim of his own bad timing. His production fell off and his hands got questionable at a time when several other receivers (notably Sherfield, Sanu and second-year wideout Jauan Jennings) caught preseason fire. James, in the end, is a very capable receiver whose speed makes him dangerous. But on a 49ers roster on which size, wingspan and toughness have become the new standard, he may be finding himself the odd man out. And while the speedster Webster isn't going to necessarily displace James with a few nice plays in one preseason game, he bears watching. If Shanahan is paying attention, and he most certainly is, he will try and get the ball into Webster's hands as much as possible in the next two weeks to see what happens.

The roster hierarchy entering the 49ers' second preseason game this weekend isn't difficult to see. Second year wideout Brandon Aiyuk and the multi-talented playmaker Deebo Samuel are clearly the 49ers' top two wide receivers, in whichever order you choose to mark them. Sherfield, picked up from the Arizona Cardinals during the off-season, has made a strong case to be number 3 on Shanahan's aerial weapons list. His 80-yard touchdown grab on a perfect throw from rookie quarterback Trey Lance last Saturday was a nifty capper to an impressive show Sherfield put on during training camp.

With the veteran Sanu (who himself showed an invigorated level of play during training camp) likely to round out the top four, there are realistically two wide receiver spots left for the remaining wideouts currently on the expanded roster. Jennings looks much improved over his rookie season, during which he spent his time on the practice squad, and his physicality and "YAC" ability now seem to be a perfect fit for Shanahan's diverse offense. At this stage it seems a near-impossibility that Jennings gets left out.

Assuming Shanahan elects to go with six wideouts on the final roster, that leaves Hurd and James to fight it out with Webster, Cracraft and veteran Travis Benjamin for the anticipated sixth and final wideout spot. While Cracraft and potentially Benjamin seem like practice squad fits, James does not. His past performance is good enough that the 49ers would need to protect him from being poached by other teams, and it's unlikely James would clear waivers within the practice squad process.

That same reality exists for the 49ers with Hurd, and the team is faced with putting him on Injured Reserve before the start of the regular season, risk losing him through the waiver process, keeping him on the roster and effectively losing a healthy player in his stead, or cutting him outright. None of that, much as in James' case, seems even remotely appealing. Regardless of what happens, there is likely to be plenty of second-guessing of whatever decision is made, most especially if either player is picked up by another NFL team through waivers and (at least in Hurd's case) manages to get healthy enough to make the 49ers look short-sighted for their decision to part ways.

Business can be harsh in the NFL, and despite the promise and talent players may possess, there always remains the real-world chance that any one of them will find himself on the outside looking in. Both Hurd and James are talented to be certain. But the broken body of one and the missed opportunities of the other may prove to be too much of a burden to place on the patience of the 49ers at this critical juncture.

The 49ers, for all their hopes to keep the football family together, may have to simply accept the reality of losing both and press on.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.

1 Comment

  • DraxtonNox
    No one likes the idea of his/her team giving up on a player only to have them reach their full potential on a rival roster. With that said, no fan could honestly say the 49ers' brass were shortsighted if James and Hurd don't make the final roster. They've been given several chances the last few years, and other players have come in made the most of their own opportunities. I loved it when they drafted Hurd, but there's no way I could blame Lynch/Shanahan from moving on.
    Aug 20, 2021 at 7:20 AM

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