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Drafting a Wide Receiver a Crapshoot for Niners

Mar 28, 2019 at 3:56 PM

The 49ers have been working through the offseason to try to address some of the many needs they have on the roster, as every fan undoubtedly knows. Their focus has been on defense, which was necessary because of, among other things, poor play in several positions, loss of players due to expiration of contracts, and even the jettisoning of a player for non-football reasons. The Niners have had challenges come at them from every direction, mostly as a result of injuries to key players as well as to players they had wanted to spend significant time watching during game situations. I mean the defensive backfield in particular here. Adding Kwon Alexander, Dee Ford and Jason Verrett gave them a Ruben Foster-like linebacker without the baggage, a proven edge rusher and a cornerback who, if healthy, could prove to be the steal of the offseason (albeit a HUGE "if").

Less attention has been paid, by both the front office and the fan base, to the offense. The team added Tevin Coleman to the running back stable, even though the team was already rather well-stocked at tailback. They also added Jordan Matthews, a big, fast receiver who has had flashes but has not been the steady performer that the team would like at that position. This leaves what is, to many fans, the biggest need on the team still unaddressed: A Number One Wideout.

Everyone is more than familiar with the Niners' flirtation with Antonio Brown via social media, and their efforts to trade for Odell Beckham, Jr., both of which came to nothing, as the Raiders traded a bag of sand and some pocket lint for Brown and the Browns got OBJ for a first- and a third-round pick and Jabril Peppers. The available free agents all had their respective flaws (even Tyrell Williams, signed by the Raiders), and the Niners did not make any splash moves. That leaves the draft. If you were to enter any site that has Niner chat on it, you would encounter dozens and dozens of rabid fans clamoring for the Niners to take a receiver and take one early. D.K. Metcalf in the first. Hakeem Butler or N'Keal Harry with their second-round pick. Trade the #2 pick for two firsts and use one for Metcalf. The names and draft slots change, but the message is the same: Draft a receiver, and grab one early.

Drafting receivers, however, is not such an exact science, not a sure thing, even when you draft them early. Since 2009, the 49ers have drafted 11 wide receivers, an average of one per year. Five of those receivers were taken in Round 5 or later - Kyle Williams, Ronald Johnson, Aaron Burbidge, Trent Taylor and Richie James. Johnson and Burbidge are tough to remember, because neither recorded a catch with the team before being cut. Williams might be the most reviled player in team history, thanks to the fiasco that was his game against the Giants in the 2012 playoffs. He was nothing resembling a factor in the team's offensive successes in his 3+ years with the team. Taylor and James have shown flashes, but Taylor was hurt last year and not the player he was in 2017 and James has not gotten much of an opportunity yet. While the jury is still out, neither, certainly, has set the league on fire at this point. But these were later-round picks, fliers, risks with little downside, right?

Let's look at the receivers the Niners drafted earlier, using more significant draft stock. Of the remaining six receivers, three were selected in the Fourth Round, one in the Second Round and two in the First. Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and DeAndre Smelter (remember him?) were drafted in the Fourth Round. Patton was on the team from 2013-16; Ellington hung around for a couple of years. Smelter had a single catch during the season he spent as a member of the team. None of these players did much, if anything, of note while with the Niners. Of all the receivers mentioned to this point, only Ellington is still in the league, although whether he sticks with Detroit this year (his third team) remains to be seen.

This leaves the three high picks - Dante Pettis (2nd Round), Michael Crabtree (1st Round), and the ever-memorable A.J. Jenkins, whose name Trent Baalke famously wrote on the card and sealed in an envelope the night before the draft. While this conjures up visions of Kevin Costner in Draft Day (one of my favorite guilty pleasures, and don't @ me for it), it is about as bad a move as a GM could make. But Trent was full of moves that warped the mind. Better to move on. Pettis showed recognizable skill last season, but he was injured for a chunk of the year, and was nicked up a lot of the time that he was active, which raises concerns about his rather slight frame and his ability to stay healthy during the brutal NFL season. Fingers crossed on him. Crabtree was a bona fide hit, at least for two or three of the years that he was with the Niners, although one could argue that a single 1,000-yard season in six years after being drafted 10th overall does not live up to the hype. Crabtree also showed an utter lack of heart on more than one occasion, took plays off and complained incessantly while with the team. Jenkins isn't worth mentioning other than to say he may have been the team's worst pick ever - and that includes their selection of Marcus Lattimore, whose knee was unfortunately ruined in college. At least that was a 4th-round pick and not number 30 overall.

But wait, you say, this is a new regime. Different scouts and evaluators of talent. They have taken James, Taylor and Pettis thus far, and they all seem like they can all at least play in the league. Don't look at the poor selections of the previous GMs, look at this one. A valid point, but John Lynch has no track record whatsoever, and Marin Mayhew, his right-hand man, did not exactly set the world on fire as part of the group drafting wideouts in Detroit. From 2009-2015, Mayhew selected 6 receivers in the draft. Three were later rounds (TJ Jones, Corey Fuller, Tim Toone), Derrick Williams was picked in Round 3 and Ryan Broyles and Titus Young were selected in the Second Round. Young showed flashes but his mental health deteriorated to the point that he could not play. Mayhew, then, went 0 for 6 on receivers while with Detroit.

What I am getting at is that drafting a receiver, drafting any player, for that matter, is far from a sure thing. The NFL is an infinitely harder venue in which to succeed than college. I could go into the last 5 years of wide receivers drafted in the first 2 Rounds to further illustrate my point, but I fear that I have already lost many of those who started this piece. The upshot is that the odds of selecting a receiver who will eventually start and play a significant role on the team, let alone turn into a stud for 10 or so years, is not even a coin flip (sorry, Kyle, couldn't pass that up) - it's trying to roll a 7 on command at the craps table. And, more often than not, the player loses. We just have to hope that Lynch and Shanahan have somehow loaded the dice on April 25th.
  • Written by:
    Matt Mani is a lifelong Bay Area resident, having benefitted from attending every Niner home game from 1973 to 1998. Along the way, he developed a deep love of the game and for the team. He is a practicing attorney in Marin County and, aside from pulling hard for the Niners, Warriors and GIants, writes in his spare time. He is father to three sons who all bleed red and gold. He somehow convinced the editors at 49ers Webzone to give him a chance to prove himself as a content provider, which has fulfilled one of his life's dreams.
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.


  • RK91
    Pettis came along extremely well when healthy. However the Niners still have a glaring need for another play making receiver.
    Apr 3, 2019 at 1:46 PM
  • Danny B
    Dante Pettis was a complete non factor even when healthy and Crabtree started off his career by whining about his pay and didn’t play for like 5 games. The niners should never draft wide receivers.
    Mar 29, 2019 at 3:44 PM
  • Mike kenney
    With Jimmy, Pettis is a Pro Bowl candidate. With A healthy Trent Taylor, Jimmy stays productive and healthy. His elite quickness has him uncover as fast as Jimmy can release the ball sets up play action and third down conversions
    Mar 28, 2019 at 9:09 PM

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