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Trent Taylor Belongs on the 49ers Roster

Mar 27, 2019 at 4:30 PM

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It's been the classic tale of two seasons.

Trent Taylor, 177th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and San Francisco's resident 3rd down menace, enjoyed a rookie campaign that went a long way toward justifying his professional presence. Just how long, exactly? Four-hundred-thirty yards on forty-three receptions, with two touchdowns to boot. Where ten yards a pop isn't a headliner in its own right, Taylor's production in 2017 becomes much more respectable in light of the circumstances.

Standing just five feet, eight inches above turf he shares with behemoth linebackers, cornerbacks with wingspans like a Cessna, and safeties whose body-fat-contents tend to mirror their forty-yard-dash times, the rookie's capacity for making clutch plays in big moments only became more apparent as the season progressed. Worth noting, Taylor was able to succeed despite two mid-season quarterback changes. Most promising of all, in fact, was the immediate rapport he developed with the last one.

Between September 17th and October 15th of 2017 - just a five game stretch - the San Francisco 49ers made history. Five consecutive losses, all by three points or fewer, each its own heartbreak. One victorious outing against an imploding New York Giants franchise aside, the writing seemed to be on the wall for head coach Kyle Shanahan's inaugural season. It would be mired, forever, by one word - almost; not unlike the Super Bowl-turned-meme with which he concluded his tenure as Offensive Coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons. And it almost did turn out that way.

In comes Jimmy Garoppolo. The perennial back-up to an ageless Tom Brady was pried, at last, from the clutches of Sith Lord Belichick in what can only be described as a moment of sentimental weakness. Garoppolo arrived just in time to ensure that Kyle Shanahan's and John Lynch's joint debut would not live on in eternal rumination - but that his own five game stretch to close the season was the one by which it was remembered. To achieve that aim, Trent Taylor was essential.

To thrive, particularly in games decided by a field goal or less, an offense must master the art of sustaining drives. Do you have a modest lead late in the fourth quarter, possession of the ball, three downs, and a chance to drain the clock ripe for the taking ten yards away? Larry Fitzgerald and the rest of the Arizona Cardinals remind us annually that three-and-outs in that situation are not going to cut it. Sometimes, points do come in chunk plays. Most of the time, however, victories are achieved in the minutiae - long, sustained, consistent drives. During the five game win streak, Jimmy Garoppolo and Trent Taylor would drive that point home, so to speak.

Statistical improvements in third down conversions and points-per-drive owed to the promotion of Garoppolo to starting quarterback, as compared to predecessors Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard, plainly demonstrate how the 49ers pivoted from their tragic almost streak into a bonafide win streak in the course of one season. But football is more nuance than numbers, and what the databases and algorithms are less inclined to reveal is the evidence of a burgeoning rapport between quarterback and receiver.

To put it into perspective, Taylor's first game with Garoppolo at the helm was a six-catch-on-six-targets, ninety-two yard effort against the Chicago Bears - a sum exceeding his last three weeks combined. Across the ten weeks in which he participated before Garoppolo took the reigns, he pulled in twenty-six receptions for 239 yards. As for the five week jamboree that came thereafter, his seventeen receptions yielded 191 yards. A bit of cross-multiplication reveals that his yards-per-catch average increased from 9.1 to a respectable 11.2. More critically, and the crux of any argument made on the behalf of the young man's roster security, is what he accomplished over those two yards.

On a team that ended the season with a cumulative third-down-conversion-rate of 38.9%, only good for 16th in the NFL, so says ESPN.com, Jimmy Garoppolo led all passers in converting that dreaded down as a starter. If ever he feels the need to publicly thank those individuals who helped him achieve that goal, he should look no further than Trent Taylor. Of fifteen third down exchanges attempted between them, Taylor caught fourteen. In very brief summation - Jimmy Garoppolo to Trent Taylor in 2017: seventeen completions for an average of 11.2 yards, fourteen coming on third down. Sustaining drives wins games.

As it too briefly did for the franchise that drafted him, 2018 promised to be a renaissance year for the slot receiver heading into his sophomore season on a hot streak. To the chagrin of everyone apart from a Bay Area chiropractor or two, a nagging back injury during the offseason meant surgery, and surgery meant Taylor would be faced with a harrowing setback. To the chagrin of everyone but a begrudged ex-girlfriend and her Instagram followers, meanwhile, Jimmy Garoppolo's torn ACL in week three of the 2018 season would deprive Trent Taylor of an important lifeline as he battled to continue producing through the pain.

Through the fourteen games in which he saw snaps, Taylor's totals in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns were essentially halved relative to the previous year. When pressed about the receiver's omission from a glorious blow-out victory against the Oakland Raiders in November 2018, coach Shanahan touched upon the challenges and implications inherent to Taylor's recovery effort, admitting, "he got healthy enough to play, but you've got to take into account that he missed an entire offseason of working out and preparing himself." We do, don't we?

Coach jargon is all too familiar to fans of professional football. Kyle Shanahan, surrounded by coaches since the day he was born, is certainly no stranger to it. According to a March 26th tweet from Senior Reporter for the 49ers, Joe Fann, Shanahan proclaimed that, "…he's extremely hopeful for Trent Taylor in 2019." For those of us rooting for Taylor's return, that sentiment seems, at first glance, to qualify as reassurance. The more cynical among us might then recall that the very same head coach suggested, on the very same day, that the talent disparity between Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard is so imperceptibly slight that first team snaps this offseason can only be judiciously delegated by flipping a coin. That was coach jargon. Coach jargon is ubiquitous.

It is not Kyle Shanahan's fault, of course, it's just what coaches do. Speak not ill of the men on your roster, be it C.J. Beathard with his one victory in ten starts, or Trent Taylor with his glaring dip in production, lest their trade value fall. Don't fall victim to the jargon - where roster spots are concerned, Trent Taylor has plenty to worry about. Not quite so much as C.J. Beathard, necessarily, but plenty.

From the second round of last year's draft came versatile receiver and punt-returning savant Dante Pettis, and from the seventh came Richie James; a receiver and kick returner who showed a spark of his own as a rookie. From free-agency came big-bodied former Eagle, twice removed, Jordan Matthews. Matthews, in terms of production, has more experience than any other receiver on the roster. If experience is anything to go by, it is unlikely he won't see at least some snaps from the slot - a position he seemed to favor during his time in Philadelphia.

In predicting the volatile future of a fifty-three man roster with only so many slots reserved for pass catchers, we mustn't overlook the two who've been locker room neighbors with Taylor since the beginning. When healthy, speedster-turned-impressive route-runner Marquise Goodwin is a veritable asset and potential difference maker. Goodwin won't be going anywhere. Undrafted free agent Kendrick Bourne was signed by the 49ers in 2017, and although his stat line as a rookie was reminiscent of Trent Taylor's lackluster output in 2018, Bourne benefits from the simple fact that his career is on a more positive trajectory. Last season, he hauled in four touchdowns en route to nearly 500 yards receiving.

Last but not least, unless you're A.J. Jenkins, is the unsuspecting college athlete destined to get a call from John Lynch next month. "Do you want to be a 49er?" John will ask. "I guess," he'll answer, presumably. We don't know his name, but we can assume that such a person exists based on cursory analysis of Kyle Shanahan's recently stated intentions, as per Matt Barrows of The Athletic, to "… continue adding at all positions and I definitely think we need to at receiver."

Be it through the draft, free agency, by trade, by land or by sea - another receiver will come. Months from now, as the rough-draft of the 49ers 2019 roster is being scrutinized and refined and whittled to fifty-three, Trent Taylor will have to battle with at least six worthy competitors to avoid the phone call, office visit, well wishes, and severance package that has spelled doom for so many budding professionals before him. Though it's unlikely he wouldn't be scooped up by talent hungry front offices elsewhere in the league, the argument remains that Taylor should remain a 49er.

To that end, here's what we can be relatively certain of: Goodwin, Pettis, and Matthews will make the cut. Here's a pair of educated guesses: Bourne deserves to be there in his own right, and I expect his name to be on the active list beside them. Any receiver worth one of six precious draft picks in the eyes of the Lynch-Shanahan regime, likewise, will probably coast to a roster spot.

Here's the margin: Richie James had limited success at receiver, but his kick returning acumen might be too enticing to forego - especially if his future promises to include any more ninety-seven yard touchdowns against the evil empire in Seattle. If James is kept onboard alongside the likes of Bourne, a forthcoming mystery receiver, and the three (virtual) guarantees, Trent Taylor proponents would be hard pressed to argue that the value of a seventh receiver justifies the cost in depth elsewhere. Let us not forget in the wake of sweeping strength-and-conditioning personnel reform that this is a team that lost an abundance of starters to injury last season. Moreover, 49ers brass also seem eager to challenge conventional limits regarding the quantity of running backs on a single roster. Extra running backs, like extra receivers, make excellent special teams contributors. Space is at a premium.

All that said - where does Taylor fit? Why should he be a San Francisco 49er in 2019 and beyond? I'd argue that he's versatile, aggressive, quick, and a cap-space bargain still beholden to his rookie contract. But perhaps that is a question better addressed to someone else.

If you were to ask Jimmy Garoppolo, who, by the grace of the football gods, will have a clean bill of health going into next season - I imagine he'd reference their mutual development during that blissful five game stretch, back when victories grew on trees and all the world was just. He might allude to all the fourth downs staved off by his rapport with Trent Taylor, all the drives sustained, all the upsets secured. It seems their mutual health and availability is something of a common denominator, insofar as winning games is concerned.

You could ask Kyle Shanahan, too, but I wouldn't. Coach jargon is ubiquitous. Conversely, ask new offensive assistant Wes Welker whether Taylor should remain a 49er, and I'd say he's liable to answer you frankly. His coaching career has hardly begun.

If you were to ask Welker, who, at 5'9" and 195 lbs when he and his 4.65 forty time were overlooked in the draft, I suspect he'd say that little slot receivers, if given the chance, can pay big dividends.
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.


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