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Is this the best wide receiver group Kyle Shanahan has had with the 49ers?

Marc Adams
May 11, 2024 at 8:37 AM

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If you want wide receivers, the San Francisco 49ers have you covered. In addition to bringing back their top three receivers from 2023, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, and Jauan Jennings, the 49ers are also bringing back Chris Conley, Danny Gray, Ronnie Bell, Trent Taylor, and others. And if that wasn't enough, they drafted Ricky Pearsall (Florida) and Jacob Cowing (Arizona) and signed undrafted rookie free agent, Terique Owens (Missouri State).

That's a solid receiving corp, led by two Pro Bowlers and a guy with a knack for picking up first downs. But where does this group rank among those Kyle Shanahan has had in San Francisco?

We can't compare this group to those from the 1980s and 1990s. That would be unfair. Any wide receiver group with Jerry Rice, the greatest of all time, will be better than one without him, especially when you consider some of the receivers who played with him or before him like Dwight Clark, Freddie Solomon, John Taylor, Terrell Owens, and others.

And you can't even compare this group to some of Shanahan's pre-49ers wide receiver rooms. His Atlanta Falcons teams had Julio Jones. His Houston Texans teams had Andre Johnson. Those guys were elite.

But the 49ers 2024 wide receiver group has the chance to be the best one Shanahan has had since he came to Santa Clara. Consider this:

2017: The leading receiver was Marquise Goodwin with 56 catches for 962 yards.
2018: The leading receiver was George Kittle, but we're talking about wide receivers. The leader of that group was Kendrick Bourne with 42 catches and 487 yards.
2019: The 49ers made a midseason trade for Emmanuel Sanders in 2019, but Samuel was the wide receiver leader that year with 57 catches for 802 yards. Kittle again led the team, but it was the first time Shanahan had a couple of real wide receivers to compliment the All-Pro tight end. Sanders had more catches and yards than Samuel in 2019, but only half of those came with the 49ers.
2020: Aiyuk's rookie season saw him lead the team in receiving with 748 yards on 60 catches. The second most productive wide receiver that season was Bourne, followed by Samuel, who missed several games.
2021: Samuel had his best season with 77 catches and 1405 yards. Aiyuk was second among wide receivers with 56 catches and 826 yards. The 133 catches for 2231 yards was the best season for a Shannahan offense in San Francisco up to that point.
2022: Aiyuk's 78 catches for 1015 yards was the top number in 2022.
2023: Last season was Aiyuk's best season. He had 75 catches for 1342 yards. Add that to Samuel's 60 catches for 892 yards, and you have the most productive season (135 catches for 2234 yards) by a 49ers wide receiver team in Shanahan's tenure.

But the wide receivers behind Aiyuk and Samuel weren't very productive in 2023. For that reason, it seems possible that the 2024 wide receiver group could end up being the deepest and the best that Shanahan has had as a head coach. Here's why:

1. Jauan Jennings should be more productive

Jennings had a down season in 2023, with only 19 catches for 265 yards. He's scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent next March, so he will be motivated to perform well. Jennings had a great Super Bowl, and I believe he can build off that. Expect him to look more like he did in 2022.

2. A better Brock Purdy

Is it possible for QB Brock Purdy to improve upon his 2023 season? It would seem so, considering he has a full offseason to work on his craft and work with his receivers. If Purdy takes another step forward, his receivers will, too.

3. More experienced young players

Gray and Bell are a year older and should be better. Bell had his moments during the season, while Gray never played due to injury. But if Gray, who has elite speed, can finally figure things out, he may be an excellent compliment to the top three receivers.

4. An interesting rookie class

Pearsall and Cowing have a chance to impact this 49ers team. Pearsall is an excellent route-runner with great hands. Cowing has game-changing speed and is tough. And while Owens faces an uphill battle due to being undrafted, he has a Hall of Fame pedigree that could help him.

A good showing from some young wide receivers and a strong debut by the rookie class could put the 2024 wide receiver room over the top. But it won't be easy. Shanahan isn't known for trusting rookies, so Pearsall and Cowing may not get the opportunities to make an impact. Still, if they can show that they can be trusted, and can make their presence felt, this season's wide receiver group could end up being Shanahan's best in San Francisco.
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