Disarray in San Francisco the last few years not only led to many, many losses and high draft picks, but it also masked any potential talent on the roster. With the dearth of coaching talent, player growth was inhibited and individuals generally weren’t put in a position to succeed on either side of the ball.
But there may be a couple of hidden gems on the roster finally primed to reveal themselves under this new regime.
Might they have one on offense?
After two years and only 56 career catches at Georgia Tech, DeAndre Smelter was taken in the fourth round, No. 132 overall in 2015, by former 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, whose hit rate in the draft, especially at wide receiver, is one of the main reasons he is no longer in town. On top of that, Smelter accounts for one of the several players that was injured at the time of Baalke’s selection.
In his final NCAA game, Smelter tore his ACL against Georgia.
He’s now entering his third year as a pro, has only suited up for one season, 2016, and it was for two games, neither of which were a start. On his one career target, Smelter reeled in a pass from Colin Kaepernick against Seattle that went for 23 yards and a first down. So, going back to college, his resume doesn’t reflect a ton of experience, and he incurred an injury that not everyone comes back from.
Then why look at him as a potential breakout candidate or even a player to make Kyle Shanahan’s new roster?
To begin, Smelter is an intriguing wide receiver prospect because he has raw talent – specifically in two areas: route running and catching. Most would say those are fairly important traits for his position. But it is true, he does those two things well. He was also a fourth-round pick as a player that knowingly had to miss his entire rookie season due to a knee injury.
That nugget combined with his low-quantity but high-quality tape at Georgia Tech, and Smelter would have been a third, or even second-round selection if healthy. And by this point, the NFL had already seen players come out of Tech’s triple-option offense and be successful if they had the traits. From 2012-2015, two of the best receivers in the league were former Yellow Jackets (Calvin Johnson, Demaryius Thomas).
In addition to Smelter’s ability as a route technician and receiver, he also has size, which San Francisco does not have a lot of. At 6-foot-2, 227 pounds, Smelter is easily the biggest receiver on the 49ers roster as training camp approaches. And, of course, size doesn’t matter unless you know how to use it, but Smelter does. For a 6-foot-2 receiver, which isn’t huge, he can win the 50-50 balls.
Time and time again, Smelter has shown a real ability to time his leap, extend and wrap his 11-inch mitts around the ball.
This next highlight is a beautiful leaping sideline catch against then-Clemson cornerback turned Vikings second-round draft pick Mackensie Alexander.
Smelter's strengths separate him from the rest of the 49ers receivers. And because Pierre Garcon is a lock, the only true battle he'll have with a player that bears similar skills is free-agent signee Aldrick Robinson and perhaps Aaron Burbridge.
This is the list of current 49ers receivers, per the team’s official website:
Nine of 13 receivers entering training camp are 6-feet or shorter. They have six players that are 5-foot-9 or 5-foot-8. And of those nine total, the 49ers are relying on Garcon (free agent, veteran), Marquise Goodwin (free agent, veteran), Jeremy Kerley (re-signed, veteran) and Trent Taylor (fifth-round pick, Shanahan’s favorite player in the draft).
There is not a lot of size among the group.
Smelter would be complementary if he can stay healthy and pick up where he left off. He’s strong and confident on his routes, and when targeted, he’s a pure hands catcher in the ways of Michael Crabtree. He snatches the ball out of the air, whether he’s waiting for a floater or plucking one off a crossing route. His aggressiveness cannot be understated – he is a ball-attacking receiver.
And right now, it seems like Smelter is young enough and fresh enough to not be written off by this new staff. If he can show up in camp, Smelter is one of the 49ers holdover players that has a shot to make this team, and perhaps contribute as an active game day player.
Media courtesy 49ers.com