Kirby Lee / USA Today photo

Kirby Lee / USA Today photo

Taking a Risk on 49ers’ Receiving Unit: Signing Another Veteran Wideout May Still Be the Right Play

Don Atkinson
Sep 11, 2020 at 4:50 PM0

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When it comes to talking about the 49ers' group of wide receivers, the words of Yogi Berra seem to apply: "It's like deja vu all over again."

Last year at about this time, the 49ers took a torpedo to their wide receiver plans when they lost both big-bodied rookie Jalen Hurd and the scrappy Trent Taylor to pre-season injuries. They had another rookie wideout, Deebo Samuel, who would later prove to be a gem for the team's offense, but at the time things were looking less than hopeful for the 49ers' chances of making significant strides toward a playoff appearance.

In an effort to boost the receiver room last season, the 49ers brought in veteran Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos, and it had a magical effect on the other wideouts for the rest of the year, most especially for Samuel and then-third year receiver Kendrick Bourne, both of whom seemed to blossom under Sanders' guidance.

Sanders left for New Orleans after the 49ers' heartbreaking Super Bowl LIV loss, but heading in to 2020, it seemed the 49ers' receiving woes were mostly behind them, and the promise of a revitalized receiving corps was in the air. Until it wasn't.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and so did the cosmic wand of Murphy's Law, which inevitably teaches that if something can go wrong, it will. Deebo Samuel broke his foot. Richie James broke his wrist. Then Jalen Hurd tore his ACL. Looking to avoid getting caught with their receiver group in a substandard state, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch continued bringing in free agent talent to shore up things.

Veteran speedsters Travis Benjamin and J.J. Nelson came in from the Chargers and Raiders, respectively. Versatile wideout Tavon Austin arrived from the Cowboys. Jaron Brown was added from the Seahawks. And ex-Bears wideout Kevin White was brought in as well. But as quickly as the team could add players, the forces of chaos removed them.

Benjamin opted out of the season under COVID-19 protocols, Nelson suffered a season-ending injury, Austin got hurt and was placed on Injured Reserve and Brown failed to impress in camp and was released. That left only White, who had little time to do much other than reserve a spot for himself on the practice squad.

The addition of rookie Brandon Aiyuk seems so far to be a cunning move, Trent Taylor seems physically rebounded, and Dante Pettis may have recovered his inner peace, but none of that has yet stood up under the weight of NFL games. What we know for certain is that, after all the detailed work Shanahan and Lynch did, in the end, the 49ers are entering their first game of the 2020 NFL season this Sunday back where they started last year: basically at square one.

Despite the fruitless end to the fee agent quest, the 49ers receiving group as a whole is not bad. But it's precisely the wrong time for the team to give up on their mission to improve.

Last Saturday was the deadline for NFL teams to cut down to the 53-man roster, and some interesting free agent options at wide receiver have appeared as the result of that process. While there is likely no one in that group who could or would carry the 49ers into a certain return to Super Bowl form, some intriguing potential additions to the team's roster are there.

Here are five free agent receivers worthy of consideration:

Hakeem Butler
Butler was cut last week by the Arizona Cardinals, something of a surprise considering he was one of the coveted picks of the 2019 draft. While really bringing nothing to the table in terms of veteran experience (Butler sat out his rookie season with a broken hand), he shapes up as an intriguing choice.

At 6'5" and around 227 lbs, Butler outsizes most NFL defensive backs by a good amount, and he is physically a good replacement for Jalen Hurd. Butler has gotten downgraded by some for dropping passes on occasion, but there's plenty of college film documenting his ability to haul in difficult catches. Once the ball is in his hands, he's shown he can plow over tacklers, and that's the "YAC" factor Shanahan cherishes. Caging in Butler isn't easy, and if given the chance he could prove a nice fit for Shanahan's offense.

Being idle your rookie year is never helpful but remember this: that is exactly what the 49ers had going into 2020 with Jalen Hurd, and they were ready to roll with it.

There are no guarantees, of course, but there is at least a possibility that Butler may still be the same guy many were calling "the best receiver of the 2019 draft" just over a year ago. Given the right team and right coach, Butler could pay huge dividends. Signed on a short "show me" deal, this would be a no-brainer for the 49ers.

Mohamed Sanu
The New England Patriots parted ways with Sanu after bringing him in last season from the Atlanta Falcons. For those who don't remember, Sanu got some heavy consideration mid-season last year by the 49ers, who ended up trading for Emmanuel Sanders instead, with Sanu going to the Patriots. That move cost New England a second-round pick and proved to be something of a bust, as Sanu caught only 26 passes for a modest 207 yards, with just one touchdown.

But to be fair, that may be less of a comment on Sanu's ability and more a reflection on how he was used by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

If there is much of a downside to Sanu, it's that he is not a multi-use player. Despite his size, he lines up mostly in the slot, and that's not a place the 49ers are particularly thin, especially once Deebo Samuel returns. He plays no special teams, or at least hasn't before now, so he adds nothing in that area, and at 31 years old, Sanu may be a bit past his prime.

Still, he's an experienced and crafty player who would likely bring a much bigger payload for the 49ers than he did for the Patriots.

Sanu would come relatively cheap on a one-year deal, and the 49ers, with their younger players still in development, could cash in on Sanu's experience in much the same way they did with Emmanuel Sanders last season. Sanu isn't the answer beyond this season, but that's irrelevant. Like Sanders, Sanu could bring some veteran presence to the 49ers' receiver room now, and it might be enough for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Demaryius Thomas
At 32 years old, the veteran Thomas has his best years well behind him, but his nearly 10,000 yards and 63 touchdowns over his 11-year career are clearly nothing to take lightly. The long-time Bronco played well for the Houston Texans in 2018, then bounced to the New York Jets, where he was used more lightly. The Jets cut Thomas this last week, a perplexing move considering the team is noticeably thin at the receiver position.

Regardless, Thomas presents an interesting opportunity for some team in need of veteran experience. That could well be the 49ers.

Critics point to former Pro-Bowler Thomas' decline in productivity since leaving Denver, but a more careful analysis suggests that may be the result of Thomas catching balls from a number of sub-par quarterbacks over the past few years, rather than a flagging of his skill set.

At 6'3" and 225 lbs., Thomas is, like Hurd and Butler, big-bodied. Again, it fulfills an immediate need for the 49ers, whose receivers are for the most part smaller and more lightly framed.

Thomas does have a history of Achilles injuries (his last was in December of 2018), but he is reportedly healthy now and could pay big dividends for the 49ers, not so much in impressive numbers, but via clutch catches and veteran presence, à la Emmanuel Sanders.

Laquon Treadwell
Taken 23rd overall in the 2016 NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings, fifth-year veteran Laquon Treadwell was and is considered by many to be a first-round bust. Maybe, maybe not. It remains to be seen whether Treadwell is an underperformer or was the victim of conservative coaching and an offensive program that was simply a bad fit.

The Vikings have a skilled head coach in Mike Zimmer, but the team's offensive schemes tend to be bland and predictable at times. Zimmer is no Shanahan, and perhaps Treadwell ended up held back by that fact.

The Atlanta Falcons signed Treadwell briefly, but cut him after their camp this year.

Treadwell has little to show in the way of numbers (hence the "bust" tag that has been laid upon him), but he's big, strong, and has undisputed talent. While other teams may be dead-ends for receivers like Treadwell, those other teams don't have the level of coaching genius that is afforded the 49ers in Shanahan. It's not out of the realm of possibility that an under-performer like Treadwell could blossom under the 49ers' inventive offensive scheme. There are plenty of examples of Shanahan's handywork there: remember that running back Raheem Mostert played with five teams in as many years before developing under Shanahan's scheme.

Like the others on this list, Treadwell might prove an interesting opportunity, and (based on his less than stellar numbers) it's likely the 49ers could pick him up for a song.

Jermaine Kearse
One-time Seattle Seahawks starter Jermaine Kearse played two seasons with the New York Jets, including an 810-yard, 5-touchdown season in 2017, before moving to the Detroit Lions. He broke his leg badly in the preseason there and sat out 2019. The Lions cut him last week.

Like a few others on this list, Kearse has had a good amount of time in the spotlight and he is a proven commodity. He's smart and knows the pressure that comes with playing on a championship-level team. What he has potentially lost in speed and durability may be far outweighed by what he brings to the equation with knowledge and experience.

Who knows if Kearse can be close to the same on the field as he was a few years back in Seattle, but he wouldn't be the first player to resurrect his career after a devastating bone injury, and he may be highly motivated to finish out his career with an elite NFL team. Richard Sherman, written off by the Seahawks a few years ago, came to the 49ers under similar circumstances and his positive contribution has been undeniable.

The bottom line may be here:

We all hope that Deebo Samuel returns at full health, that Richie James steps up, that Trent Taylor rebounds from a long time away from football, that Brandon Aiyuk can handle a feature role in the NFL from the get-go, and that Dante Pettis has really, truly come back from the dead. But there is nothing remotely close to a guarantee that any of that, let alone all of that, will happen.

The reason that Shanahan and Lynch have kept quarterback C.J. Beathard around is because he is cheap insurance, especially now in these times of possible coronavirus quarantine of individual players. That may or may not be a valid reason, but if it is so, then it's equally true that getting another veteran receiver on board before the season gets too far underway is truly a smart move.

The 49ers brought Emmanuel Sanders in mid-season last year, and that move paid off big. Sanders headed for greener pastures during the offseason, but he did exactly what the 49ers needed him to do when he arrived. It can happen again, if Shanahan and Lynch make a move now. If not, the 49ers are tempting fate, and Murphy's Law, and that may prove to be an unnecessary risk to take.

The 49ers are a carefully and intelligently managed team, and if the last few years have proven anything, it's that they have the capacity to exceed expectations. With the season's start just days away, they are already facing a crucial roster decision, and what happens now could have a significant effect on where they go from here.

As Yogi Berra so aptly advised, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
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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