Wide receiver fits for 49ers in 2018 draft based on what we know about Shanahan

The 49ers' official website last week put out a story featuring wideout Andrew Hawkins, who played for Kyle Shanahan on the 2014 Browns. With his unique perspective, Hawkins broke down the DNA of the passing offense, and quantified the importance of positions, namely receiver, as it pertained to team building. The point was to shed light as to how Shanahan may be thinking now that the season is over, and he eyes weapons for his new quarterback.

“You need certain pieces in Shanahan’s offense,” Hawkins told Joe Fann on the FNS Podcast, underscoring that an "alpha" receiver is not necessary. He doubts the team under Shanahan would place an emphasis on that position in the first round, which would theoretically rule out players like Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton and James Washington.

In addition to Hawkins’ note about the coach's mid-to-late-round strategy for unearthing receivers, Shanahan has previously provided some descriptors of receivers for his offense. We also started to get an idea of what he likes after witnessing his first draft and free-agent period as 49ers head coach.

Shanahan admitted after the 2017 draft that he was a fan of Washington Husky turned Bengal John Ross, calling the 5-foot-11, 190-pound receiver a “true separator” and a “difference-maker.” And after missing out on Ross, the only receiver San Francisco wound up selecting in that draft was 5-foot-8, 181-pound Trent Taylor. In addition to the size likeness, Taylor and Ross share traits in that their games are founded on route running and separating.

From this draft sample, we learned size was not a primary factor for Shanahan, and that he’d rather have receivers that consistently get open instead of having to make contested catches.

It showed up when the team signed veterans and undrafted rookies, as well. Shanahan had the team ink 30-year-old technician Pierre Garçon (6-foot-0), undeveloped speedster Marquise Goodwin (5-foot-9), and for depth, Aldrick Robinson (5-foot-10). Two undrafted rookie receivers from fast, vertical college offenses in Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden also made the final 53-man roster, and were no doubt handpicked or co-scouted by Shanahan.

The skill sets of all the receivers mentioned, from Ross to Bolden, and the cheap investments across the board, are also proof points validating Hawkins' characterization of how this receiving corps will be built.

Patterns are emerging.

So, based on Hawkins’ recent comments and what we know about Shanahan’s receiver criteria, here are a few non-first-round options the coach may have on his radar heading into draft season. Now, this list is sure to evolve as the draft process fully gets underway, but this is an early list of players to start monitoring for the 49ers.

Deontay Burnett, USC

Height/weight: 6-foot-0, 170 lbs.

Class: Jr.

2017: 86-1,114-9

An ability to separate coupled with a spectacular catch factor is what makes Burnett stand out in this year’s receiver class. With 4.4 speed, he is a smooth, fluid route runner, and possesses very quick feet, which show up before and after the catch. He checks the box as a hands catcher, one who confidently snags the ball away from his body. Burnett also consistently times his leaps, extensions and dives wells.

His junior games against Stanford, Texas and Notre Dame were outstanding, not just because of the numbers, but because of the level at which he performed and the plays he made. Burnett's a gamer, too: In the 2016 Rose Bowl against Penn State, he hauled in 13 balls for 164 yards and three touchdowns. Then in his final college game in 2017 against Ohio State, he set a Cotton Bowl record with 12 receptions for 139 yards.

With his slick, acrobatic style and dependable hands, I’d put Burnett in the Paul Richardson or Emmanuel Sanders realm of comps. He’s lean and undersized but has what it takes to be a starting WR in the NFL, and a great fit for Shanahan’s offense, which calls for speed, skilled route runners and reliable pass catchers.

D.J. Moore, Maryland

Height/weight: 5-foot-11, 215 lbs.

Class: Jr.

2017: 80-1,033-8

Moore is an Indy car; compact, twitchy and fast. The 2017 first-team All-Big Ten selection and Big Ten Receiver of the Year has a game defined by speed and insane run-after-catch ability. Moore has the route strength and jets to get to where he needs to be, then he is fearless and exact when attacking the ball in the air. Once he has possession, if he has even the tiniest window, Moore could take it to the house. He just consistently looks quicker than the defense around him, and could be a tough cover in the pros.

Style wise, Moore reminds me a lot of Brandin Cooks, there's even shades of Steve Smith Sr.

Moore also belongs to a solid NFL pipeline of receiving threats in Vernon Davis, Torrey Smith and Stefon Diggs. He started 35 games for the Terps, and had a catch in 33 consecutive games. Moore is top five in the school’s record book in single-season receptions, single-season receiving yards, career touchdown receptions, single-season touchdown receptions, career receptions and career receiving yards.

Richie James, Middle Tennessee State

Height/weight: 5-foot-9, 171 lbs.

Class: Jr.

2017: 31-290-3 (5 games)

James, as a small school receiver entering the draft off an injury-plagued season, is an interesting prospect. He could wind up being a steal. When healthy and on the field, he’s quite the sight to see.

James is a ‘shot out of a cannon’ type of receiver, bursting off the line with great acceleration and making corners fall at the breaks of his routes. He deceives defensive backs well with his footwork and body language. This enables James to create space and safe throws for the quarterback. As an added bonus, he’s also surprisingly good at the catch point. Then, with the ball, James has a blend of blazing speed and elusiveness, making him tough to tackle.

Despite playing less than two and a half seasons, he is Middle Tennessee’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. James was also on the national radar prior to this season, as he was named to the Biletnikoff and Paul Hornung Award watch lists.

As for how he’d function in San Francisco, imagine a Jamison Crowder or Taylor Gabriel type of player. With his open-field ability and extra gear, he could be deadly in Shanahan’s offense, which stretches defenses out and often schemes receivers open with room to run.

Dante Pettis, Washington

Height/weight: 6-foot-1, 175 lbs.

Class: Sr.

2017: 63-761-7

The U-Dub star is a player that should be on every board due to his polish, versatility and history of production. He is an acrobatic receiver with great body control and very good hands. His use his limitless; Pettis can operate on the perimeter, in the slot, as a deep threat, on screens or across the middle. His all-purpose ability extended into special teams, too, as he had a fantastic career as a punt returner (NCAA-record 9 touchdowns). Pettis is just generally dangerous with the ball in his hands.

Over 53 career games, he caught 163 passes for 2,256 receiving yards and 24 touchdowns. In nine games, he scored two or more times. This year as a senior, Pettis scored four total touchdowns on Fresno State (3 receiving, 1 punt return). He was named a consensus first-team All-American in 2017, and earned first-team All-Pac 12 honors at two positions (wide receiver and return specialist).

In Pettis, I see a slightly smaller version of Jordy Nelson – a strong-bodied, high-flying technician that can line up all over and produce like a WR1.

Christian Kirk, Texas A&M

Height/weight: 5-foot-11, 200 lbs.

Class: Jr.

2017: 58-730-7

Kirk is a fast, strong athlete with big-play ability as a receiver and returner. He has highly functional game speed, showing off a bunch of different gears. That, working with his field vision and agility, is how Kirk cuts through traffic and makes big gains. He sees the field at attacks it at different speeds. With this package of traits, Kirk can turn short passes into big gainers and take the top off defenses.

Kirk was a five-star recruit coming out of high school and had a record-setting freshman season with the Aggies, followed by a very solid career. In 39 career games, he racked up 234 receptions, 2,856 receiving yards and 26 receiving touchdowns. Kirk averaged 21.8 yards per kick return and took one back for a touchdown this past season. He was even better on punts, averaging 22.0 yards per return and finishing with six touchdowns.

In 2017, Kirk was an offensive captain for Texas A&M, he was named first team All-SEC all-purpose and return specialist, and he was a second team All-SEC wide receiver. Strong, compact and dangerous with the ball in his hands, Kirk is comparable to Golden Tate.

Height/weight via player school bio

Stats provided by Sports Reference

Media courtesy AP Images, @USC_Athletics, USA Today Sports Images, Star Tribune, Getty Images

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