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Wide Receivers: Long look back, brief look forward

This is the first of many looks back at the season that was. I initially was going to give grades, but it's so subjective that I might as well just give my own qualitative opinion. Additionally, I want to use these to get the thoughts rolling on what the 49ers might do in free agency and the draft for a specific position. Nothing too specific, but just get the thoughts flowing. Onto the wide receiver position.

This season was certainly an interesting one at the wide receiver position. When Mike Martz came to town, many of us had visions of Mike Furrey and the like dancing in our heads. The Mike Martz offense created some phenomenal wide receivers, but something different happened in San Francisco. When Mike Singletary (and Shaun Hill) took over, the offense became more conservative. And yet, as it became more conservative, we saw some our veteran wide receivers find a groove and the younger receivers make big strides.

Isaac Bruce: After ten games of the season, Isaac Bruce was looking decent but not much else. He'd a couple good games, but not much else. However, for the final six weeks, Isaac Bruce became Shaun Hill's go-to guy. He picked up more key first downs than I can remember, all while cracking the 1,000 reception mark and surpassing Tim Brown on the receiving yards career list. Not too shabby for a 36-year old who St. Louis thought was finished.

Bruce has one more year on his contract and I find myself quite excited to see what he can do on his own and with the younger receivers in 2009. He's not a burner who will break long plays, but given the likely conservative nature of the next offensive coordinator, it's perfect. As the younger guys continue to develop I think Bruce will become the focal point less and less. However, the good thing is he'll always be there as a safety valve.

Bryant Johnson: Johnson's final numbers come across as disappointing. He was almost nonexistent for large stretches of the Nolan season and had to battle back from a bad training camp injury that stunted his development in the offensive scheme. However, I did notice that as the season wore on, he made numerous important catches at key points in the game. I think he still thinks he can be a #1 type of receiver, but at best he was a complimentary cog this season. Heck, had Josh Morgan not gotten his staph infection, I'd imagine Morgan would have fit in quite nicely as the #2 receiver.

The question then is whether or not to bring him back. I'm convinced that if he can get through training camp healthy, he could be a very solid weapon for the 49ers. Of course, I also think that Jason Hill, Josh Morgan and even Dominique Zeigler have enough potential that I'd rather let Johnson walk than stunt their growth. I think it comes down to how much growth does the team think they'll get from Hill, Morgan and Zeigler. Hill, in particular, is entering his third season, which is a time when many young receivers make a big leap in production.

Jason Hill: Hill was just about nonexistent his rookie season due to injury issues and being a rookie on an awful team. His second year was shaping up to be even worse as he had no catches during the Nolan part of the season. Singletary took the helm for Week 8 and immediately Jason Hill became productive. Coincidence? Well I suppose Arnaz Battle getting injured made a big impact as well. However, Singletary did give him the opportunity. Jason Hill is a prime example of the problem with Mike Nolan. Aside from the higher picks, he was never willing to let young guys show their stuff. Mike Singletary has shown that with Hill and Rachal, among others, and it's helped the team grow.

As previously mentioned, the third year of a wide receiver's career is often a crucial year in his development. The question with Hill is if he can make that step. Hill's development is tied in part to what the team does with Bryant Johnson and Arnaz Battle. Johnson is a free agent and Battle is a year away from free agency. I'm a big Battle fan, but the young guys seem to have more talent than him. One option is keeping Battle and then when Bruce is done after next season, Battle keeps his roster spot as the younger receivers move up in the ranks. In the end I'm not quite sure what to do with Arnaz Battle.

Josh Morgan: Thanks to injuries to most of the receiving corp, Josh Morgan got all the reps with the first team offense. This allowed him to develop solid chemistry J.T. O'Sullivan, which in turn led to a very impressive couple of weeks in the preseason. I know that most of us here at Niners Nation were piloting the bandwagon quite admirably. Of course, a staph infection veered the bandwagon right into the San Francisco Bay. Morgan lost a lot of weight and his development was brought to a screeching halt. He did make his way back, but was derailed again by a groin injury.

While we did not get the immediate stud receiver we'd anticipated, he did provide some big time highlights that have 49ers fans hungry for more. If he and Jason Hill can both stay healthy, I think we're in for quite the competition between those two in training camp.

Dominique Zeigler: Aside from the awesome afro, Dominique Zeigler was not too shabby in his brief time with the 49ers. He spent a year and a half on the practice squad before injuries to Arnaz Battle and Josh Morgan opened up a spot on the roster. He finished the season with 5 catches for 97 yards and 5 special teams tackles. Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but four of Zeigler's catches gained some big yards as I recall (he had one catch for one yard so that doesn't get factored in).

Maybe he'll never be a big time stud, but we could have a nice little slot receiver on our hands. Not a game-breaker, but somebody who can make important contributions throughout the season. Some tough choices need to be made in the offseason, and his performance this season warrants notice. Also, since he spent more than six games on the active roster, he can no longer be placed on the practice squad.

Arnaz Battle: The "rock" of the 49ers receiving corp the last few years (that's not saying much) was crushed by injuries the final two months of the season. If Bryant Johnson were to return, it's entirely possible Battle has fallen to fifth on the depth chart at best. I honestly don't know what will happen with Battle going forward. When healthy he's a very solid, if unspectacular, receiver.

I think the problem I have is being too emotionally attached. Battle has been there through the dark years and if the team were to finally turn things around, it would suck for him to miss out. This is a guy who was primarily a quarterback in college and has turned himself into a pretty decent wide receiver, all things considered. At the same time, I think he's maxed out his abilities, so maybe it's time to consider other options.

Looking Forward
If you're interested, you can head over to Football's Future to check out the various 2009 free agents, wide receiver in this case. The big name, of course, is TJ Houshmanzadeh. He is not expected to get the Bengals franchise tag, so it will just take a big time contract offer. The 49ers are likely to have the cap room, but I'm not sure it's the wisest idea (if it were to actually happen of course). The 49ers aren't great at wide receiver, but the development is coming along rather nicely, with what they've got.

Aside from Housh, there really isn't much of anything out there in free agency, which leaves us with the draft. It's still early and I have a lot of research to do, but I definitely don't expect the 49ers to spend a first, or probably even second round pick on a wide receiver (although Barrows thinks they go with Percy Harvin from Florida with the first pick).

After the jump I've got a list of ESPN's Top 20 WR prospects. Feel free to discuss 49ers wide receivers, free agent wide receivers and wide receiver draft prospects until you're blue in the face.

Here's the top 20 receivers according to ESPN. After each name is the overall ranking among all potential draft picks. Some of these names are speculation on underclassmen (e.g. Michael Crabtree). Also, it's not entirely up to date as a guy like Hakeem Nicks of North Carolina isn't even in the non-top 20 part of the list and his stock has to be rising after the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

1. Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech (4)
2. Jeremy Maclin, Missouri (8)
3. Percy Harvin, Florida (32)
4. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Maryland (38)
5. Kenny Britt, Rutgers (52)
6. Brandon LaFell, LSU (60)
7. Juaquin Iglesias, Oklahoma (69)
8. Derrick Williams, Penn State (78)
9. Louis Murphy, Florida (83)
10. Mohamed Massaquoi, Georgia (88)
11. Brian Robiskie, Ohio State (94)
12. Brandon Tate, North Carolina (96)
13. Brandon Gibson, Washington State (100)
14. Pat White, West Virginia (yes, the QB) (104)
15. Demetrius Byrd, LSU (113)
16. Quan Cosby, Texas (117)
17. Brooks Foster, North Carolina (132)
18. Ramses Barden, Cal Poly (139)
19. Kenny McKinley, South Carolina (144)
20. Jarrett Dillard, Rice (150)