Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Heading into the 2020 draft, the main debate isn't if WR is a need for the San Francisco 49ers, it's whether it needs to be addressed at No. 13 or at No. 31. Let's take a look at how the Niners WR corps was built for the 2019 season, how they've produced, and the current roster as they approach the NFL draft.
In the last two drafts, general manager John Lynch has proven he's committed to getting the WR corps in shape. In 2018, he traded up in the 2nd Round for Dante Pettis, and for Richie James Jr in the 7th. In 2019, he drafted both Deebo Samuel (2nd round) and Jalen Hurd (3rd round). That is a lot of draft capital to spend, especially the three Day 2 picks, and the price paid to move up for Pettis.
As they went into the 2019 season, there was reason for optimism with the WR corps, but then they got bit hard by the injury bug. Taylor's foot surgeries, and infection, kept him on IR the entire year. That was a huge loss for the WR corps as a whole, but especially Jimmy Garoppolo, as Taylor and him have a great connection and rhythm. Hurd had great moments in the preseason, it became quite apparent what Lynch and Kyle Shanahan saw in him, and it was going to be exciting to see how Shanahan was going to use him.
Even with those two losses, going into the season with a primary WR corps of Pettis, Samuel, Bourne, Goodwin, and James Jr., seemed to be a workable proposition. But after six games, even with a 6-0 record, that was clearly not the case. Lynch then paid a hefty price in sending 2020 3rd and 4th round draft picks for Sanders, who immediately solidified the WR corps with his professional route running, and allowed both Samuel and Bourne to flourish. Unfortunately, the Niners lost Sanders to free agency, which leads us to where the Niners are now. You have Deebo, Bourne, and hope.
Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd
You're hoping on their health. We saw quickly how well Garoppolo and Taylor connect, and there's no reason to think that doesn't continue, especially with the emergence of Deebo and Bourne. Hurd, even though it was just preseason games, you saw the talent...but he didn't want to get on a plane to be at the Super Bowl. Lynch can't be all in on their health, it's just not a smart bet.
You're hoping on his production increasing. Goodwin hasn't produced for two seasons due to health and going through truly horrific life events off of the field. Goodwin is a loved Niner, but 12 catches in '19, and 23 catches in '18, just doesn't warrant the $11M+ he is due the next two years. Unfortunately, due to his production and cost, I don't see him being on the 2020 roster.
Richie James Jr.
You're hoping on his production increasing. James is undoubtedly explosive, and has done a solid job returning kicks as well. No cost issue at all, but he only has 15 catches in two years (on 24 targets). The question I have on him, is why isn't he being used more? With the status of the WR corps before Emmanuel Sanders, there was an opportunity there, which he didn't seize (nor did Goodwin).
You're hoping on his health, and a production increase. He's had quad and foot injuries the past two seasons and played a total of 17 games. Even when he was playing the last two years, he's had a total of 18 catches. Kick returning was an assumed reason he was brought in, but even when healthy, he returned no kicks in '19, and only returned 5 kicks in '18. He is familiar with Shanahan, and there's no contract issue, so it's about if he's healthy and can he earn a spot.
You're hoping he gets it together. There is no talent issue with Pettis. None. He runs great routes, gets jailbreak open, and has good hands. Clearly, he is not on the same page with Shanahan, and maybe even with Garoppolo. The last five games of 2018, you saw his potential, and the front office had to be excited that they possibly had a WR1 or WR2 on their hands. Unfortunately, 2020 did not get off to a good start for Pettis, and he didn't see another target after Week 9, and only suited up for a total of 11 games.
Given the state of the WR corps before Sanders arrived, and the way Pettis closed out '18, it's shocking he didn't seize the opportunity presented to him.
So what is the issue? We have no idea, and our speculation is just that, speculation. The most common thoughts are that it's due to his personality, work habits, attitude, coachability ... but nobody outside of that locker room or Shanahan knows what it is. One possibility I've raised before, is that it may be due to a lack of precise route running. Yes, he gets open, but maybe not how and when Shanahan wants him to, which is then messing up other aspects of that play design for the entire offense. Sanders was a very precise and professional route runner, which is why I believe he was acquired over other WRs who were available. It's possible Pettis is traded, or possibly even released if there is a heated WR competition in camp (I fully expect a tough WR camp battle for the last two roster spots). Hopefully, we see '18 Pettis, and not '19 Pettis, in 2020, if he's on the roster.
Lynch has proven in the draft, and in the trade market, that getting the WR corps in shape is of extreme importance to him (and Kyle). If he's there, I believe he selects CeeDee Lamb at No. 13. If not, I think Michael Pittman (USC) or Jalen Reagor (TCU) at No. 31 is probable. I also have to believe there's a Shanahan special that he'll pound his shoe on the table for on Day 3. It would not surprise me at all to see the Niners draft two WRs this upcoming draft.
"Hope" is not a strategy. Drafting the right players and creating a fierce WR competition is.
Media courtesy Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group