Kyle Shanahan in 2017 took over as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and did a total overhaul of the offense. One of the first moves his coaching staff made was re-signing veteran receiver Jeremy Kerley to a three-year, $10.5 million dollar contract. Kerley primarily played in the slot the previous season and led the 49ers in catches (64) and receiving yards (667). He also had three touchdowns.
When free agency began, the staff added three more veteran receivers: Pierre Garçon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson. However, those signings did not stop Shanahan and John Lynch from using a fifth-round draft pick on Trent Taylor, the 5-foot-8, 180-pound receiver out of Louisiana Tech. Taylor was coming off a senior campaign in which he led the nation in receiving with 1,803 yards on 136 catches.
As preseason came to a close and the 49ers put the finishing touches on their roster, they kept receivers Garçon, Goodwin, Taylor, and Robinson, as well as undrafted free agents Kendrick Bourne and Victor Bolden. And they made a bit of a shocking move in releasing the recently signed Kerley. But Taylor flashed enough ability in training camp and preseason to get a shot at starting in the slot.
As a rookie in 2017, Taylor’s production was up and down as he played with three different quarterbacks. But as the season went on and the 49ers rolled with Jimmy Garoppolo, who they acquired from the Patriots, one thing became apparent, and that was that Taylor developed into the 49ers’ safety blanket on offense.
There were losses at the receiver position, as both Garçon and Bolden ended the season on injured reserve. Goodwin, Bourne and free-agent pick up Louis Murphy’s roles changed. But there was one constant. And that was Trent Taylor.
Slot receiver role:
Quality slot receivers are typically quicker than fast. They play near the line of scrimmage more often so you would like your slot to be a willing blocker. They need to be smarter with the amount of choice routes they get asked to do and need to be one with their quarterbacks, oftentimes being the safety blanket. Their yards per catch usually aren’t very high but they are very vital to moving the chains.
Trent Taylor fits that mold – a tough, gritty, fearless receiver who is reliable (he had an 85% catch rate in Garoppolo’s starts). In total, Taylor caught 63% of his passes on third down. He doesn’t have the size or pure speed to create separation, so understanding how attack leverages as well as gets defenders to stop their feet while he accelerates out of a cut are a key part of his game. And he knows how to do that, as Taylor caught 15 out of 15 passes on slant routes with a quarterback passer rating of 141.0.
He also quickly built trusting relationships with Garoppolo and previous starting quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard.
It’s no secret the 49ers’ yards-per-drive and third-down conversion rate skyrocketed with Garoppolo. But Taylor was a huge part of that success. According to Pro Football Focus, Garropolo completed 14 out of 15 passes to Taylor on third downs, with the only incompletion being a rare Taylor drop. Here I will go through several third-down plays where Taylor excelled, showing in particular how he was able to get open and how his skillset is a real threat to defenses moving forward.
Taylor converted on third down several times in Week 13 against the Bears. The first of three was a simple slant route against a Cover 3 defense; Taylor attacked safety Chris Prosinki’s outside leverage, was patient and hit him with foot fire, allowing Taylor to easily cross face and give him just enough space to catch the ball between Prosinki and linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Notice how as Taylor goes to secure the catch, he shields himself away from the incoming defender, preventing a huge collision. This shows toughness as well as awareness.
On 3rd-and-8, Garoppolo found Taylor over the middle for a 15-yard gain.
Smarts and toughness from the slot receiver showed up on a consistent basis in this game. The Bears run a ton of zone coverages, which usually means a defender is waiting crash down on you, and all Taylor did was continue to be tough and reliable, extending his hands in traffic for yet another catch.
Here's a great play design by head coach and offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan.
Late in the game on 3rd-and-9, the 49ers lined up in bunch right. Murphy and tight end Garrett Celek ran vertical routes to pull the underneath coverage while Taylor ran a whip route to expand the defense and come back underneath for an easy catch and just enough yards to get a first down. Precise route running to go along with great play-calling made this play work.
There are a few different nuances to Taylor’s game that jump out to me. His awareness to knife upfield after a catch earns him extra yards. Taylor is by no means a burner, but here for example he turned a 10-yard play into 33 yards just by knifing upfield after the catch, which caused the defensive back to lose footing. This effort helped secure a win in Garoppolo’s first start for the 49ers.
Against the Titans in Week 15, Taylor ran a simple out route on 3rd-and-short. He did a great job at the top of his route to get the first team All-Pro defensive back Kevin Byard to stop his feet. And after the catch, Taylor immediately puts his foot in the ground and knifed upfield to gain another 12 yards.
A lot of guys in that same situation either run out of bounds or stop and try to cut back and make guys miss. Taylor does a great job of taking what the defense gives him.
When the 49ers drafted Taylor, one of the first things that jumped out to me about him was how he rarely went down on first contact – another good third-down attribute for him that showed up here against the Rams. On 3rd-and-long he was able to catch the ball four yards short of the first down marker, break a tackle and gain an extra eight yards and the first down. Plays like this to move the chains are a key reason as to why Garoppolo led the NFL in third-down conversion rate over his five starts.
It’s well known around the league that Shanahan draws up some of the best play designs in the league. But sometimes it takes a little improvising to keep the chains moving. The scramble drill was in full effect on third downs and oftentimes Taylor was the receiver Garropolo found in those situations. Here are just three examples of Taylor continuing to work open for Jimmy G and covering for either a third-down conversion or touchdown.
This article was more about the receiving skillset of Trent Taylor but it should be noted that Taylor was a special teams contributor as well. He finished 10th in the league with 9.37 yards per punt return. Taylor isn’t the explosive dynamic return man that’ll make five guys miss and take it 80 yards to the crib, but he is very consistent catching punts, and like he did on offense, take what the opposing team gives him.
The 49ers drafted college football’s best punt returner Dante Pettis, so it will be interesting to see if Taylor still resumes that role. Many also believe acquiring Pettis means less snaps in the slot for Trent Taylor. One thing we know for sure is the 49ers’ wide receiver room is much more competitive than it was in 2017.
Media courtesy AP Images, NFL