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49ers Roster Breakdown: YAC Bros, replacing Kendrick Bourne, and adding depth at WR and TE

Chris Wilson
Mar 23, 2021 at 2:46 PM0

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The San Francisco 49ers return the majority of their receiving threats, but the Niners will look to add depth at wide receiver and tight end via free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.

The San Francisco 49ers began the 2020 season with high expectations for their passing game after the team added first-round wideout Brandon Aiyuk and veteran tight end Jordan Reed as additional receiving threats for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Unfortunately, the injury bug ensured the Niners' plans for a repeat Super Bowl run – led in part by a potent offensive attack through the air – never came to fruition.

Luckily, the gang is back – save WR Kendrick Bourne – for a second, and hopefully healthier, run in 2021. With a year of exceptional rookie play under Aiyuk's belt, expectations are raised for San Francisco's receiving corps this season – and the 49ers aim to add talent to the group during the draft and the remainder of free agency. After reinforcing and improving their offensive line in the first wave of free agency, the 49ers now turn to upgrade and add depth to their young, talented stable of pass-catchers.

49ers WR Free Agents

  • Kendrick Bourne (UFA, Patriots, 3-yrs, $22.5M)
  • Trent Taylor (UFA)
  • River Cracraft (ERFA, re-signed, 1-yr, $850K)
  • Jordan Matthews (UFA)

49ers TE Free Agents

  • Jordan Reed (UFA)
  • Ross Dwelley (RFA, re-signed, 1-yr, $1.6M)
  • Daniel Helm (2020 PS, re-signed, 1-yr)

Initial Outlook

Bourne cashed in on the New England Patriots' wild offseason spending spree with a surprisingly-expensive three-year deal worth up to $22.5 million, particularly for a one-time undrafted free agent who's averaged under 450 receiving yards during his four NFL seasons. Although the team will miss Bourne's positivity in the locker room, his sometimes ill-timed but always top-tier dance moves, and his durability, the decision to allow the high-energy receiver to walk was an easy one, as 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan isn't in the business of paying top dollar for a replaceable wideout.

Bourne isn't the only overpaid receiver on this way to New England. The former Niner will join fellow wideout Nelson Agholor, who continues to fight his way out of first-round-bust status, as well as a pair of starter-caliber tight ends in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Despite his limited career production, Smith established himself as a red-zone threat last season, while Henry remained far from his 2017 form, despite setting a career-high in targets during 14 games played in 2020. In the end, the Patriots spent a ton of money on four players who will need to exceed expectations to justify their respective price tags, which historically runs counter to Belichick's "Patriot Way."

Compared to Bourne's new squad, the 49ers' receiving threats are more dangerous and far more affordable, even including the NFL's top tight end, George Kittle. Kittle's $5.5 million price tag is lower than both of his Patriot counterparts, while fellow "YAC Bros" Deebo Samuel and Aiyuk are slated to make just $5 million combined in 2021.

Richie James has the tools necessary to become the fourth member of the "YAC Bros," and the 49ers' third "starting" wide receiver, but has been consistently underutilized in San Francisco. Despite finally seeing an uptick in snaps in 2020, the team's backup quarterbacks rarely looked his way – unless they had to. But when forced into the Niners' top receiver role due to a false-positive COVID test and related NFL shenanigans, James responded with a career day, yet was rewarded with just 6 targets over the next month of action.

James will face considerable competition for both a starting gig and significant playing time, particularly if former third-rounder Jalen Hurd is medically cleared to play. 2020 draftee Jauan Jennings also expects to make his NFL debut, and veteran Travis Benjamin will return to the team to compete for playing time after opting out of last season due to COVID-19.

Free Agency

The 49ers were active during the first wave of free agency, but remained relatively quiet at wide receiver and tight end. Their lone addition from outside the organization is former Arizona Cardinals special teams ace and occasional wideout Trent Sherfield:

The team also re-signed special-teamer and wide receiver River Cracraft to a one-year deal, but have yet to make an official decision about former third-down specialist Trent Taylor or veteran receiver Jordan Matthews, although signs point to Taylor facing up uphill battle to make the final roster.

Current free agent and former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has yet to face the hard truth that his multi-year drop off in production – and market value – has been and will continue to be extremely affected by his age and the exit of quarterback Andrew Luck. If the former third-rounder can come to terms with this reality and become open to compensation offers consummate with his production and ability, he could be a potential target for a young wide receiver room in need of veteran leadership.

Wideout Sammy Watkins clearly missed his first-round expectations, and even considered retirement before taking a pay cut with the Kansas City Chiefs last year. Both Watkins and former Los Angeles Rams receiver Josh Reynolds – who closes in on a one-year deal with the Tennessee Titans – have the speed and downfield ability Bourne lacks, and could be signed at a fraction of the price.

And finally, there's always the high-risk, high-reward option of Antonio Brown, who, if nothing else, would keep the locker room interesting.

At tight end, the Niners are set for the foreseeable future thanks to Kittle, but his violent running style is bound to result in minor injuries going forward. A supplemental TE opposing teams will need to account for, with the ability to fill in for Kittle if needed, should be high on Shanahan and general manager John Lynch's offseason priority list.

After re-signing Ross Dwelley to a 1-year deal and bringing back practice-squad TE Daniel Helm, San Francisco currently has 5 tight ends who are similar in size but are each drastically different from one another. Kittle is the NFL's most complete tight end and dominates in the passing game and as a blocker. Dwelley can do a little bit of everything, but none of it very well; His greatest strengths are his hands and his willingness to make a play while taking a bit hit, but his lack of speed holds him back from becoming a serious threat in the passing game. He's also a poor blocker, which is problematic, particularly since he also serves as the 49ers' backup fullback.

The Niners drafted Charlie Woerner in the sixth round of last year's draft primarily for his blocking skills, which you wouldn't have guessed based on his play during the first half of the 2020 season. The rookie came around as a pass-blocker near the end of the year, and even saw a bit of action as a receiver; however, if he expects a lengthy career in the NFL, his blocking in the run game requires immediate improvement. Rounding out the group are a pair of one-year signees: Daniel Helm, an inline tight end who was brought in for his blocking skills, and the athletic freak Chase Harrell, a WR-turned-TE who also tried out for the team at defensive end.

After Kittle, the 49ers need a legitimate tight end to threaten opposing defenses. San Francisco could still bring back Jordan Reed for a temporary fix. Otherwise, look for the team to address the position in the 2021 NFL Draft.


By re-signing left tackle Trent Williams and cornerbacks Jason Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley, the San Francisco 49ers are now free to draft the best player available with the No. 12 overall pick. There's always a chance the team chooses to break the bank to trade up for one of the top quarterback prospects – but we'll save that discussion for the finale of our 2021 49ers Roster Breakdown Series.

As usual, there has been little talk out of Santa Clara regarding the players the 49ers are targeting in the draft. However, the Niners have allegedly been in "consistent" contact with University of Miami tight end Brevin Jordan:

Entering last season, USA Today predicted Jordan to be drafted as high as pick No. 9 in the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft, while as recently as last month, additional outlets also mocked the Miami product as a first-round selection. However, while Jordan is a playmaker, he's far from a complete tight end, and history tells us that unless you select an exceptionally elite talent at the position, you're more likely to hit by drafting a pair of late-round fliers than a second-tier tight end on Day 1.

Analyst consensus is Jordan will come off the board on Day 2 of the draft, which would make him a much more reasonable selection. However, the 49ers' second pick – No. 43 – is still a bit too rich for the tight end, and he'll likely be drafted prior to San Francisco's third selection at No. 102. Jordan would be a steal at the end of the third round, but if the Niners are truly interested, expect them to be aggressive – if not overly-so – in their pursuit of Jordan on Day 2.

The only tight end worthy of a first-round pick is Florida's matchup nightmare Kyle Pitts, who's predicted to be drafted in the top third of the first round. If the elite tight end falls to San Francisco, the thought of a Kittle and Pitts pairing at tight end may be too much for Shanahan and Lynch to pass up.

If the 49ers are interested in adding a rookie wide receiver to their roster, they chose the right draft. This year's WR class boasts three sure-fire first-rounders, and an additional two or three prospects who may make the cut. It is likely that one-or-more of the top-3 wideouts will be available at pick No. 12, although the most complete receiver – LSU's Ja'Maar Chase – probably won't make it out of the top 10. That leaves a pair of talented – perhaps even more so than Chase – Alabama wide receivers who would fit into Shanahan's system, but come with a question mark. Devonta Smith might be the top prospect in this class if he didn't weigh 30 pounds less than Chase, and Jaylen Waddle has the most wiggle, athleticism, and upside of the three, but has been hampered by injuries, and thus, low overall production.

Similar to years past, if San Francisco passes on the top prospects for a second-tier receiver, there will be many to choose from after Day 1. Don't be surprised if the 49ers come back with a Day 2 wideout to compete for a starting job immediately, and a Day 3 receiver to develop for the future.

Overall Outlook

If the San Francisco 49ers stood pat with their current cadre of wide receivers and tight ends, the team would be in fine shape for the 2021 season – barring injury. But Shanahan and Lynch know very well how injuries can quickly ruin a season and transform a team from Super Bowl contender to scouring the waiver wire for potential starters. At a minimum, a responsible front office would re-sign Reed, and draft a Day-2 receiver to compete for playing time.

A better scenario would be signing a starting-caliber wideout like Hilton at a reasonable rate, and drafting a mid-round receiving threat at tight end. Finally, adding Pitts or an elite receiving prospect in the first round, and supplementing the other position with a starting-caliber player via free agency or the draft, would cause many sleepless nights for defensive coordinators in the NFC West.

Next: Roster Breakdown: D-line, linebackers
  • Chris Wilson
  • Written by:
    You may have seen Chris Wilson's work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis, and film breakdowns at Minute Media, FanSided, Niner Noise, Insidethe49, LockedonSports, ClutchPoints, and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.
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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