This may be the most talented San Francisco 49er wide receiving unit since the days of Terrell Owens. However, there remains many different issues that faces the unit.
Injury concerns are an overriding issue for the units, especially Michael Crabtree. Additionally, San Francisco is going to have a minimum of two new receivers on the 53 man roster. There is absolutely no position in the receiving rotation that is etched in stone as I right this. So, the preseason is going to say a lot about how it turns out.
Braylon Edwards: You have to consider Edwards the 49ers #1 receiver at this point simply because he has experience and success at the NFL level. San Francisco brought the former all-pro receiver in on a cheap 1 million dollar contract as he attempts to rebuild his value and enter the free agent market in 2012.
There is no question that he is the 49ers most talented receiver. Edwards gives Alex Smith that huge target at wide receiver that he has been missing since joining San Francisco. The receiver has the ability to stretch the field and make big plays, which is going to open up the offense a lot. You can expect to see Edwards utilized in a few different ways. First, he will be set wide as the #1 receiver, however, you will see him lined up in the slot on pre-snap motions in order to create mismatches.
If Alex Smith and Braylon Edwards can get on the same page during the preseason there is no reason why Edwards wont reach the 1000 yard mark in 2011.
Michael Crabtree: He is quickly becoming an enigma within the San Francisco 49er fan community. Crabtree didn't endure himself to the base by holding out as a rookie, nor did help his cause with a lackluster performance in 2010. Crabtree is currently injured and wont play this preseason. In fact, it will be the third consecutive preseason that he has missed since being drafted #10 overall in 2009.
There is no questioning Crabtree's talent and off the field drive. He has an extremely strong work ethic and wants to be a top tier receiver. However, injuries have hampered him over the last two seasons and his relationship with the fan base and media isn't going to well right now. I am not going to place blame or call him a diva. Instead, I will say that 2011 is a make or break season for the former college All-American.
Crabtree needs to step up and become a threat in the passing game and I believe he will. The new offensive scheme is going to fit what Crabtree does well. He is extremely strong in the open field and makes defenders miss because of his athleticism. You will see Crabtree lined up in the slot a little more in 2011, but he will be mostly utilized on the outside as either the #1 or #2 receiver.
Another aspect of the game that is going to help Crabtree in 2011 is the fact that he wont be lining up against other teams #1 corners most of the time. You are not going to see him get shutdown by the likes of Leon Hall or Nnamdi Asomugha. If you understand the nuances of football, this is going to be huge.
Josh Morgan: Many people are down on the 4th year receiver from Virginia Tech and I really don't get it. Morgan isn't a true #2 receiver in the NFL, but he fits the slot position perfectly; that is where he will be playing in 2011. He did have nearly 700 yards receiver last season and is a down field threat. Lining up in the slot means that he will be going up against nickel backs and safeties, which is going to be huge for Morgan's production this season. Imagine a receiving corp that consists of Crabtree and Edwards on the outside with Vernon Davis and Josh Morgan lined up in the slot. What player is the defense going to zero in on? Well,it won't be Morgan. This means that he is going to get a lot of one on one coverage against defensive backs that aren't necessarily good in coverage.
You might not see more than 700 yards receiving from Morgan in 2011, but that wont mean that he didn't improve. There is just many different options that Alex Smith has in the passing game. If Morgan fits that slot receiving position well in 2011, I would be happy to see San Francisco quickly lock him up with an extension mid-season.
Ronald Johnson: We have been hearing great things from the Matt's in regards to Johnson's training camp performance and I am extremely excited to see him get on the field tonight. I was a huge fan of his selection in the 6th round of April's draft. Johnson comes from a pro style offense and was a consistently good receiver for USC over the course of his career.
He is quick and elusive in the open field and opposing corners have a hard time keeping up with his moves and ability to get behind the defense. Johnson also brings with him a passion for the game that I wish every single San Francisco 49er had. One issue that Johnson had at USC was separation at the line of scrimmage when corners didn't play off. He had issues getting into the route and fending off defenders first move at the line. This is something that I can see him improving on with time and experience. Also, that aspect of the game is a larger issue when it comes to playing on the outside; where you are not going to see him play very much in 2011.
I personally think that Johnson has the ability to be a 1000 yard receiver in the NFL and he was a huge steal in the 6th round.
Kyle Williams: He showed tremendous upside during training camp last season but it didn't translate to the field. Some of that had to do with injury and Singletary not allowing the younger players to see the field much. I remember watching Williams at Arizona State and saying "he has the look of an NFL receiver", and this hasn't changed.
He needs to work on sharpening those route running skills and getting separation at the line. That said, many young receivers have these issues; not everyone can be Calvin Johnson. I expect Williams to have a strong preseason and challenge Ted Ginn for kick returning duties. He will also be in the competition for the #3 and #4 wide receiving jobs. I think Williams best fit is in the slot, but he does have the ability to play outside as well.
Dominique Zeigler: Injuries have dampened many peoples expectations of Zeigler. He has been a training camp sensation over the last few seasons but is unable to stay healthy. I really cant knock him for his on the field abilities. If healthy, Zeigler would be a solid #3 wide receiver on most teams. However, time is quickly running out for him to prove that he can stay healthy and contribute in the NFL.
Ted Ginn: I don't even know why I have him on this list. Ginn should strictly be a special teams player. He has the speed and elusiveness to be a great NFL wide receiver; this is why he was drafted #9 overall in 2007. However, Ginn just doesn't have the hands or route running skills to be a successful NFL receiver, it is as simple as that. What troubles me more is that he hasn't improved in this aspect of the game in four NFL seasons. Jim Harbaugh has continuously preached versatility in regards to the roster, so I don't think Ginn makes it if he is going to be strictly a special teams player. That said, he is the 49ers best kick return man.
Kevin Jurovich: The San Jose State alum was a mainstay at "Camp Alex" during the lockout and built a connection with the starting quarterback. Jurovich also knows the playbook extremely well, these are two things that bode well for him moving forward.
Jurovich jumped onto the west coast college football scene in 2007 when he compiled nearly 1200 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. However, an injury cost him most of the 2008 season and he never quite matched those previous numbers again. I really like the way this kid plays, he may be a taller version of Wes Welker; who catches everything that comes his way. Much like most of the players listed above, Jurovich fits better into the slot. He has refined route running skills and rarely drops a pass. I think that he could be a sleeper to sneak onto the roster.
Lance Long: Believe it or not Long had 20 receptions for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2009 before being cut loose following the season. Long wasn't that productive of a receiver in college, but has extremely good hands and is elusive in his route running skills. It is a long shot that he makes the roster, but a strong preseason performance could guarantee Long a spot on the practice squad.
Tyler Beiler: I really don't care at which level an individual plays in college, some stats are simply amazing no matter what the competition is. Well, this is the case with Beiler. He averaged over 215 yards per game at Division III, Bridgewater College in 2010. Additionally, Beiler ran a 10.85 one hundred meter dash in track and field. Anyone, with knowledge of that sport knows exactly how good that is.
If I were to have written this article two weeks ago, Beiler would have been considered "camp fodder', which is still the likely scenario. However, he is going to get a chance to showcase his talent against NFL level competition tonight; this is all that he has asked for. The chances of Beiler actually making the 53 man roster or becoming a major contributor in the NFL is minimal, but he an impressive story nonetheless.
My Wide Receiver Depth Chart
1. Braylon Edwards
2. Michael Crabtree
3. Josh Morgan
4. Ronald Johnson
5. Kyle Williams
6. Kevin Jurovich
7. Ted Ginn
8. Dominique Zeigler
9. Lance Long
10. Tyler Beiler
Analysis: The 49ers are probably going to keep six wide receivers. The first five on my list are locks to make the roster, so that leaves one spot open for the other five players. If San Francisco decides against keeping a pure special teams player, Ginn, then the options are dwindled down to four. Personally, I think that Zeigler is on his way out, which contradicts an article of mine a few weeks ago. I believe that you may be looking at Jurovich, Long and Beiler as the three surprising candidates to make the 53 man roster.
Of course, all of this has to do with Harbaugh and Roman' thinking in regards to Ginn. Whether, or not they think he can contribute on offense, and if not, is he worth a roster spot to be just a special teams player. It is still extremely likely that they go with the veteran, but thinking outside the box is also a possibility. Jurovich and Long bring more to the passing game than Ginn does, while a strong performance by Beiler could lead San Francisco to take a chance on him; only time will tell.