Navigating the injuries: 49ers look to retool wide receiver corps on the fly
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
"No, we do not have any idea who will start at the X, Z and F receivers. It's been a little tough deal with receivers right now. We've lost three guys before we've even practiced who are expected to make the team," 49ers' head coach Kyle Shanahan proclaimed as he spoke with media on Monday afternoon.
While the scorching temperatures in the Bay Area cooled down on Monday, the heat in the 49ers receivers' room has turned up with receivers Deebo Samuel, Richie James Jr. and Jalen Hurd still sidelined due to various injuries.
Samuel (foot) and James Jr. (wrist) are expected to join the team early in the upcoming season, but Hurd (ACL) will miss his second straight year with the 49ers despite soaring expectations this offseason.
Shanahan looked visibly frustrated as his visions of a position-less offense will be put on ice for at least another season. Hurd was expected to fill the "big slot" receiving position, using his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame to demonize smaller nickel cornerbacks. James' speed on the outside and in the return game will be sorely missed, while Samuel was slotted in as the No. 1 receiving option this season.
The 49ers' offensive play designer has already been dealt a crappy hand already in a season where health and continuity become even more critical. Given the circumstances, how will Jimmy Garoppolo's receiving corps look come opening week vs. Cardinals (which is less than a month away)?
Can rookie Jauan Jennings replace Jalen Hurd's role in this offense?
With Hurd returning from a serious back injury, the 49ers decided to spend a seventh-round pick on Tennessee receiver Jauan Jennings, who had a similar physical profile to Hurd.
Jennings comes in slightly smaller at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, but does not lack any of the physicality that the ex-Baylor pass catcher brings to the game. Playing exclusively out of the slot in college, Jennings would seemingly slide right into the same role that Hurd would've held with the 49ers.
The biggest challenge that will face Jennings is learning Shanahan's playbook as a rookie in a COVID-limited offseason. It's normally an uphill battle for rookies (ask Deebo Samuel) and without OTAs or preseason games, throwing Jennings into the deep end may be an unreasonable demand.
The former Tennessee receiver forced 30 missed tackles last season -- most among all collegiate receivers -- and was one of three receivers who gained a first down on every third-down reception, per Pro Football Focus.
If given the opportunities, Jennings seems like a player Shanahan would create in a lab, but I'm not sure if that Jennings will see the field much early on in 2020.
Will the 49ers try to play more 12 (1RB-2TE-2WR) or 21 (2RB-1TE-2WR) personnel this season?
What's one way to maneuver through the injury landmines? Change the game plan to create opportunities for other skill-position players.
With limited options at receiver, the 49ers could turn to heavier personnel groupings and limit having to deploy three receivers as much as possible. Last season, the 49ers' most popular choice of personnel grouping was 11 (1RB-1TE-3WR) at 40 percent of the time, but I'm not sure they can reproduce that.
The next highest grouping frequencies last season were 21 personnel at 28 percent and 12 personnel at 19 percent. I expect that these groupings will see an uptick in 2021.
With the additions of tight ends Jordan Reed and Charlie Woerner, Shanahan has more versatility in the receiving game at the tight end position this season compared to last year. Also with the healthy return of Jerick McKinnon, the 49ers' offense suddenly has a legitimate pass-catching threat out of the backfield as well.
Aside from Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor, the rest of the roster has a lot of unproven talent or old retreads who are familiarizing themselves with Shanahan's playbook. Given the limited offseason and lack of preseason games, I'd imagine Shanahan leans on trustworthy playmakers, until the likes of Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings get up to speed.
What can be expected from receivers Tavon Austin, J.J. Nelson and Jaron Brown?
This is like a reenactment of the movie Invincible, except instead of holding tryouts with anyone, the 49ers are bringing in a plethora of veteran receivers, attempting to plug in the holes that are left vacant after injuries to Hurd, Samuel and James Jr.
Former Cowboys' receiver Tavon Austin has been known for his notorious speed, but none of his previous offensive coaches have seem to extract the best version of Austin yet. Can Kyle Shanahan finally break the mold?
After only racking up 13 catches for 177 yards last season, there's a reason Austin was waiting for his phone to ring in mid-August without a job. His abilities in the return game add extra value, but I can't see the ex-Cowboys' receiver making much of a dent on this roster, aside from being a camp body.
The player that personally intrigues me is former Cardinals' receiver J.J. Nelson, who has the deep-threat ability, putting up 17.5 yards per reception during his 2017 campaign in Arizona. Since then, Nelson fell out of the rotation in 2018 and battled injuries in 2019 with Oakland.
As Shanahan alluded during Monday's presser, deep threats aren't just based off of 40-yard dash times, but can also be a combination of larger receivers who have effective hands. The 49ers' head coach does believe that Nelson brings the fastest straight-line speed, which could help taking the top off of a zone-based defense.
Former Seahawks' receiver Jaron Brown isn't officially with the team, but is expected to take a visit. Brown is another player that shined with the Cardinals in 2017, but hasn't been the same since. He brings a bigger frame at 6-foot-3, but figures to be another camp body, given the timing of the signing.
The 49ers' run of luck at wide receiver seems to continue over the past few seasons, as they can't seem to get rid of the injury bug at the position. Rookie Brandon Aiyuk has been highly impressive during the early part of training camp, while fourth-year receiver Trent Taylor seems to be regaining his connection with Jimmy Garoppolo.
Shanahan was highly complimentary of Kendrick Bourne, who's gone from being called into the coach's office his rookie season for tardiness to now being an exemplary veteran receiver on the roster.
Even with the injuries, the 49ers seem to have a weird combination of proven "third team in three years" talent and rookie "trying to find my way around Santa Clara" talent, so will Kyle Shanahan be able to push the right buttons to pull this group in the correct direction?