SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In an offseason in which two of the best receivers in football were traded, the San Francisco 49ers‘ only addition at the position came in the form of a low-cost flier on Jordan Matthews.
Yes, the 49ers were heavily involved in trade talks for Odell Beckham Jr, but after extensive discussions with the New York Giants, the two sides simply couldn’t find the common ground needed to make a deal. Beckham was traded to the Cleveland Browns instead.
Ultimately, the Niners’ pursuit of Beckham came up short because they were unwilling to part with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. And when New York declined to include its No. 6 overall pick as part of a package for Beckham (with the Niners adding additional compensation), the move to land a No. 1 receiver was dead.
As general manager John Lynch has pointed out, the Niners might have been better positioned to make a trade for Beckham had they had a first-round pick that wasn’t quite so valuable this year.
“I don’t want to get into why it didn’t happen and all that, but we tried,” Lynch said. “I think they tried. It’s just the way things were set up — there wasn’t a fit and so we moved on.”
Missing on Beckham now leaves the Niners with a big need to add to a receiving corps that was among the least productive in the NFL last season and then subtracted its most proven (albeit oft-injured) commodity in Pierre Garcon.
In 2018, the Niners’ receivers combined for 152 receptions for 1,990 yards on 259 targets. Those numbers ranked 28th, 29th and 29th in the NFL in those categories for the season. It was the sixth time in the past 10 years that 49ers receivers failed to combine for at least 2,000 yards.
The group now consists of second-year undrafted wideout Kendrick Bourne, who took a step forward on his way to posting 42 catches for 487 yards and four touchdowns. The Niners also will bring back Marquise Goodwin, who has battled injury issues and personal tragedy over the past couple of seasons; Trent Taylor, who is coming off a back injury that limited him in 2018; and rookies Dante Pettis and Richie James.
The news wasn’t all bad for that group last season, though, as it still managed to average 13.1 yards per catch (11th in the NFL) and scored 16 touchdowns (tied for 15th). Still, the Niners’ passing game focused on the tight ends and running backs, as those position groups combined for 2,262 yards (second in the NFL), 178 receptions (seventh) and 12.7 yards per reception (first).
None really qualifies as a household name, though the Niners spent a second-round pick a year ago on Pettis and he showed serious potential toward the end of the season after some early-year injury issues.
“I’ve got real high expectations for Dante,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Dante had a typical rookie year where he had some good games and some good plays, but a lot of ups and downs. He battled through some injuries early on, which I thought set him back, but the way he finished the year was very exciting. He got a lot more opportunities at the end of the year. He earned those opportunities. You always want to see how guys do when they’re out there, and he got better — he didn’t get worse. He got better the more he played.”
As it stands, Pettis is the only wideout who seems certain to figure prominently in the team’s plans for next season, as competition is likely to be heavy at the other spots. That means Goodwin could move into a more limited role that takes advantage of his speed and helps him stay healthy. It also could mean more work for Bourne and a good battle between Matthews and Taylor for playing time in the slot.
Regardless, the 49ers head toward this year’s NFL draft in search of a wideout or two who can contribute right away.
The bad news for the Niners is that this draft doesn’t come with a Julio Jones type of game-changer at the top of it. The good news is the Niners’ picks in the second (No. 36) and third (No. 67) rounds could represent a sweet spot for a group of wideouts who project as instant contributors even if they might not become superstars.
While many believe the 49ers could use a big, physical target for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, the Niners’ emphasis isn’t really about size. Rather, Shanahan puts a premium on movement skills, hands and the ability to consistently create separation with precision route running.
Among the players who could be available for the Niners in the second or third round are Mississippi’s A.J. Brown, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry, Georgia’s Riley Ridley, Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler and Massachusetts’ Andy Isabella.
Of that group, Brown looks like the ideal fit given his intermediate route-running skills and his ability to gain yards after the catch, though he’s also a candidate to go in the first round.
One way or another, it’s fair to expect the Niners to add another wideout in the first three rounds and to possibly take another before the draft is done.