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Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

The Seven Wide Receivers Who Should Make the 49ers’ 2020 Roster

Brian Renick
Jun 10, 2020 at 8:00 AM0

Last season, the 49ers initial 53-man roster broke down like this on the offensive side:

  • 3 quarterbacks
  • 4 running backs
  • 7 wide receivers
  • 4 tight ends
  • 8 offensive linemen

The makeup of the offensive side of the ball from a roster-building perspective probably won't deviate much from last season. The NFL and NFL Player's Association negotiated a new Collective Bargaining Agreement over the offseason. One of the changes from a roster standpoint is the increase in the active game-day roster, from 46 players to 48 players (as long as one of the extra two players is an offensive lineman). So one change that you may see from last season is nine offensive linemen. This would mean there would have to be a reduction in position group size somewhere, but wide receiver probably is not one of them.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan runs an offensive scheme that is predicated on getting players open in space and allowing them to use their athleticism, speed, and grit to gain more yards on the ground (yards after the catch, or YAC). I like to call it the YAC Attack. Because of this offensive design, Shanahan prefers to have a stable of receivers that can line up anywhere within the structure of the offense. This has led to a lack of a true No. 1 receiver on the team — outside of tight end George Kittle. But a diverse receiver corps allows Shanahan to disguise many of his play designs and keep the defense guessing. And it's this diversity that makes it fun to watch, but difficult to predict who will make the roster.

The current roster boasts 12 wide receivers (in alphabetical order): Brandon Aiyuk, Travis Benjamin, Kendrick Bourne, Chris Finke, Jalen Hurd, Richie James Jr., Jauan Jennings, Dante Pettis, Shawn Poindexter, Deebo Samuel, Trent Taylor, and Chris Thompson. Within that group, there are subgroups: practice squad, locks to make the roster, locks if healthy, and bubble guys. Let's take a look at the likeliest wide receivers to make the 53-man roster when the 2020 season begins.

Practice Squad

Shawn Poindexter, Chris Finke, Chris Thompson

I'm not going to spend much time with these three players. Poindexter has potential as a former volleyball player, and he spent the entirety of last season on injured reserve. Finke was an undrafted free agent this past offseason out of Notre Dame. He is built in the Trent Taylor mold (small, shifty, slot-only) and has kick and punt return experience. The team signed Chris Thompson in December of 2019 after he spent the previous two seasons on the Texans practice squad, being elevated to the active roster for 13 games in 2017.

The Locks

Deebo Samuel
Based on production, Deebo is the de facto No. 1 wide receiver on the team after Emmanuel Sanders left in the offseason. The last eight games of his rookie season, from Week 10 forward, were outstanding. Samuel had 35 receptions for 575 yards and two receiving touchdowns to go along with 122 yards rushing and two rushing scores during that stretch. Throughout a 16-game season, that would be 70 receptions, 1,050 yards, and four receiving touchdowns along with 244 yards rushing and four rushing scores. A 1,294-yards-from-scrimmage and eight-touchdown performance would be quite the sophomore season for Deebo. More importantly, for the YAC Attack, Samuel led all wide receivers in missed tackles forced with 18, according to Pro Football Focus. Who was first in that category, per PFF? George Kittle, with 20.

Kendrick Bourne
Bourne doesn't necessarily get you excited with eye-popping numbers, or supreme athleticism, but he provides steady production and has the trust of both Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. In fact, Bourne was one of only four active wide receivers that Shanahan had on the active 46-man roster for the Super Bowl. Bourne's season last year wasn't spectacular, he had 30 catches on the year for 358 yards, but when you dig into the numbers, you can see that he has an important role on the team. Of those 30 catches, five of them were for a touchdown, and 18 went for a first down. Those numbers will earn Bourne a spot on the roster.

Brandon Aiyuk
This is easy based on his first-round draft position. Aiyuk will definitely make the team. In the entirety of Shanahan's career as an offensive coordinator and a head coach, his teams had never drafted a wide receiver in the first round until Aiyuk this year. Shanahan sees quite the future for the former Arizona State Sun Devil, and it's easy to see why. In 2019, he caught 65 balls for 1,192 yards and eight touchdowns. His YAC numbers are what pop out though, at 10.9 yards per reception, which means he will fit right into the YAC Attack.

Locks if Healthy

Trent Taylor
Taylor came to the 49ers as a 5th round draft pick in 2017. During his rookie season, he caught 43 passes for 430 yards and two touchdowns. In 2018, he caught 26 passes for 215 yards and a score, and in 2019 he was on injured reserve for the whole season. None of what you just read should make you think that Taylor is a lock to make the roster if he is healthy. However, the numbers don't show just how important he was to the offense once Garoppolo took over as the starting quarterback in Week 13 of the 2017 season. Garoppolo and Taylor built an instant rapport, and he became the quarterback's favorite target. Almost half of his production from that 2017 season (17 receptions, 191 yards, 1TD) came in those last five games.

2018 was a lost season for both the 49ers and Taylor, but Taylor emerged as an offensive MVP candidate during training camp in 2019 before he went down with the foot injury that robbed him of his season. Nick Wagoner of ESPN quoted fullback Kyle Jusczczyk as saying, "There seems to be a connection between Jimmy and him, and he just seems to be moving at another speed and just has an incredible feel for space on the field. Many times, it's just him and Jimmy just kind of improvising." A connection with your starting QB, and feel for space in an offense with a play-caller who schemes players into space, seems like quite the recipe to make the roster as long as he is healthy.

Jalen Hurd
It's hard to talk too much about Hurd because he is such an enigma. Hurd started his collegiate career at Tennessee as a running back from 2014-2016. In 2017 he wanted to transition to wide receiver due to the wear and tear that his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame was taking at the running back position, but Tennessee would not allow it, so he transferred to Baylor, sat out a season, and then played the 2018 season where he caught 69 passes for 946 yards and seven touchdowns. He clocked a 4.47 second 40 yard dash time at the combine and was drafted by the 49ers in the third round.

He showed intriguing promise during training camp, including catching two touchdowns against the Cowboys in the preseason, but he went down with a stress fracture in his back, and his season was lost. Peter King of Football Morning in America shared this quote on a podcast with general manager John Lynch from April 29: "I walked out of that camp, and we got in the car to go to the next place, and the two women I was traveling with said 'Well, what was your impression?' I said, 'We just saw the 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.' This guy is going to come out of nowhere. He's going to be fantastic."

Hurd is a big question mark going into the season, but if he is healthy, he will be quite the versatile weapon for Shanahan to employ within the offense, and a lock to make the roster with his athleticism and draft position.

Bubble Guys

With the above five players (Samuel, Bourne, Aiyuk, Taylor, and Hurd) likely to make the roster, it only leaves two spots for the following four players: Dante Pettis, Richie James Jr., Travis Benjamin, Jauan Jennings

Jauan Jennings
Jennings is the least likely to make the roster out of these four. I like to think of him as "Jalen Hurd Insurance." Jennings was drafted in the seventh round of the 2020 draft out of Tennessee. He is a converted quarterback, and he is big, strong, and nasty, but he is not particularly athletic or fast. He ran a 4.72-second 40-yard dash at the combine (for comparison, that is the same range as both Kyle Juszczyk and Charlie Woerner), but he was incredibly productive at Tennessee, especially with the ball in his hands (sense a theme here?!). Jennings is an intriguing prospect and will have to have an incredible camp, or an injury, in order to force his way on to the roster.

Travis Benjamin
Benjamin is far-and-away the most experienced player in the WR room. He has played eight seasons between the Cleveland Browns, who drafted him out of the University of Miami in the 4th round of the 2012 draft, and the Los Angeles Chargers. Benjamin ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which makes him the fastest receiver currently on the roster. He also is an accomplished return specialist, which could be the key for him to make this team. The other advantage he has is that he played for Kyle Shanahan when he was the offensive coordinator for the Browns, so he has experience in the offense. His speed, experience, and familiarity with the offense could be the determining factors in the fight for the final two WR spots.

Richie James, Jr.
James has been the return specialist for the 49ers since being drafted in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft out of Middle Tennessee State. He has been steady, but unspectacular in that role, and has been only lightly used within the offense. In the two years he has been on the team, he has recorded a total of 15 receptions for 295 yards and two touchdowns. It seems as if he just hasn't been given a significant opportunity within the offense to prove his value, but that doesn't bode well for somebody who only averages 7.53 yards per punt return and three touchdowns. Three other receivers are likely to make the roster with kick return ability (Samuel, Aiyuk, and Taylor) and a fourth, Dante Pettis, who will be competing with James for a roster spot. The future is quite uncertain for Richie.

Dante Pettis
Pettis is the lightning rod of this entire group. He has been maddeningly inconsistent since the 49ers traded up in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft to grab him out of the University of Washington. Pettis has all the skills and athleticism necessary to not only make the team but to be a force within this offense. He has superb route-running skills, excellent speed, tremendous athleticism, and pretty reliable hands. The biggest question mark surrounding Pettis is his desire and commitment. Pettis showed up to training camp in 2019 out of shape, and could not work his way out of Shanahan's doghouse after that. It's hard to know what type of shape Pettis is in since COVID-19 has robbed us of offseason organized team activities and rookie mini-camps, but if he shows up to training camp this season with a renewed commitment and mindset, it is highly likely that he will make the team.

The YAC Attack is going to be a big factor in the success of the offense in 2020. Shanahan has a firm commitment to running the ball, but after last season, most defenses are going to gear up to stop the run and make Garoppolo and his wide receiver corps prove themselves. In the end, Travis Benjamin's experience and return ability, and Dante Pettis' draft position and (hopeful) recommitment will win them the final two spots on the roster, with the final seven looking like this:

  • Deebo Samuel
  • Kendrick Bourne
  • Brandon Aiyuk
  • Trent Taylor
  • Jalen Hurd
  • Dante Pettis
  • Travis Benjamin
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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