Weapons have been hard to come by in recent years for the 49ers, particularly when it comes to the passing game. The team has seen staples like Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin go off and do good things with the Raiders and Lions – Vernon Davis is in D.C. as a joker TE with Jordan Reed – and San Francisco meanwhile has been left bare bones.
But in their rebuilding, the team may actually have a next-generation type of weapon to become part of their offensive identity of the future.
Trent Taylor is that player.
Handpicked by head coach and offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan, the Louisiana Tech pass-catcher has already received a hard comparison to Wes Welker, and talked up a bit around the draft community. General manager John Lynch, who has been promising no jobs this offseason, even praised Taylor recently in an interview with KNBR.
“Trent Taylor is exactly what we thought he’d be. He’s a guy who can flat out separate. You need guys, when it comes to any down, but especially on third downs, you need those guys that can just go get open. And he’s a guy who we saw on film that had an ability to do that against just about anyone. And then, he’s carried that over to practice here. He’s been fun to watch.”
Though there is a reason there were 24 receivers selected ahead of him in the 2017 draft. At 5-foot-8, 181 pounds, Taylor is smaller than most running backs. He’s closer to Darren Sproles’ size than he is Danny Amendola’s. Taylor also has small hands (8¼ inches), below-average arm length (28¾ inches) and so-so straight-line speed (4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash). This hurt his draft stock.
But Shanahan doesn’t see that as a problem, but instead further proof that Taylor is a perfectly designed specimen for the slot role.
“What Trent did is, I thought he was as good at the slot role as anyone that we were looking at in the draft, he really owned that spot. He was very quick. His body’s always under him. He can make cuts . . .
“We’re talking slot receivers. There’s different types, but usually the quicker guys whose feet are always under them, who can make cuts at any time, those are the guys who make it and usually those guys are smaller guys who aren’t so fast. There’s not many slot receivers who run 4.3. There’s a reason. They can’t cut as well as they need to underneath.”
Above all other traits, both Lynch and Shanahan key in on the route running. For a receiver, having that as a primary tool eases the transition from the college game to the NFL. It can make a receiver consistently effective and raise their floor. Taylor's route running is what will make him a tough matchup for defenses right away.
Here are a few examples of how Taylor produces surviving solely on his route running.
Taylor's jab step and head bob are how he wins on sharp-cutting underneath routes. The slant, in particular, has been a money route for him. Taylor makes a hard plant with the foot opposite the direction he is cutting.
Oftentimes, because of the quickness he executes it with, the corner bites, and it creates a nice, safe throwing window for the quarterback:
Here is a close-up shot of Taylor at the 2017 Senior Bowl practice winning in the red zone. Again, we see the hard step outside and the ability to gain inside leverage on the DB, which ultimately creates a safe, high percentage throw for the quarterback:
And at 5-foot-8, with such a compact build, he's able to control his upper body weight, and use it as part of the sell on his routes. Taylor does it here against Rice – not so much winning with the jab step, but throwing his upper body outside before scraping back inside:
Vertical from the slot
Taylor can do more from the slot than simply act as a short-to-intermediate option. He's able to use his route-running skills to get deep, as well. Here Taylor uses a hop step and bats away the defender's hands to get behind the coverage:
This next example is even more impressive. Taylor is tasked with getting open on a deep post, but has to do so against off-man coverage from the slot. Taylor does this by running straight into the lap of the corner, pushing him back, before executing his patented jab step.
Again, it creates a dream of a throwing window for the quarterback:
It's also worth illustrating that Taylor can do this in short-range situations as well, like the short down-and-distances and in the red zone. Here Taylor sells the inside route and beats the nickel on a fade nine yards from the end zone. And he's got all kinds of room:
Taylor's package as a Y receiver does go beyond quick-hitting underneath routes. He enables offenses to do more from the slot with his route-running knowledge, communication with the quarterback and ability to finish.
On this play Taylor shows a few things. He first gets even with the nickel with a quick step off the line. This allows him to gain outside leverage and sell the go route. With his back turned to the quarterback, and on Taylor's inside shoulder, the corner is out of position and forced to react to the receiver's next move, which can come quick.
He is really at Taylor's mercy at this point.
Before he even reaches the stem of his route, Taylor knows he's won. And in perfect confluence with the quarterback, he uses his quickness to break outside, losing the cornerback for a chunk of yards and a fresh set of downs.
Taylor has also shown a capacity to get loose on 3-5 yard out-breaking routes, as well.
Route running has seemingly become more and more overlooked by pro teams due to the influx of size and fast 40s.
But the one thing all-time great receivers have in common–or even the best in the league today–is their ability to be a step ahead of the defender in front of them with ankle-breaking route running, whereas most every wide receiver bust has been an unproductive height/weight/speed prospect.
And in Kyle Shanahan's offense, where the well-designed route concepts are what separate his system from the rest, Taylor could be a major, major asset and potential lynchpin for years to come. And it wouldn't be a surprise to start seeing dividends this year.
Media courtesy Getty Images, Bleacher Report