As we continue rolling position-by-position through the 49ers roster projections, we now arrive at the wide receivers. To date we've discussed the inside linebackers, the offensive line, the defensive line, the quarterbacks, the running backs, the fullbacks, the safeties, and the cornerbacks. The 49ers wide receivers have as much "potential" as any unit on this team. At the same time, they have as much to prove as virtually any unit on this team. Certain members have taken steps forward, while others often seem to be running in place, or falling off the treadmill entirely.
Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Jason Hill, Ted Ginn, Jr.
Kyle Williams, Brandon Jones, Dominique Zeigler
Bakari Grant, Jared Perry, Scott Long
In 2009, the 49ers elected to keep six wide receivers at the start of the season: Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill, Micheal Spurlock, and Brandon Jones. If the 49ers had signed Crabtree prior to the start of the season, Spurlock likely would have been released much earlier. The important point is that the team went with six wide receivers.
As I go look through the 49ers wide, we know that Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan are the big two for now. Morgan still has plenty to prove, but for now he's taken positive steps forward and at this point has earned that #2 spot behind Crabtree. For those that disagree, I point to his improvement from year 1 to year 2 as evidence that he's moving in the right direction. He's got a ways to go still, but you can't tell me he isn't improving.
The real question is how the wide receivers shake out after Crabtree and Morgan. I'll ignore the longshots at this point because even if the team keeps six receivers, Grant, Perry and Long's best shot is at the practice squad.
Some folks may view Ginn as more of a bubble player. Personally, I think Ginn is a guy the team is desperately hoping can succeed in at least the punt return role, but also as a potential deep threat. A guy like Michael Crabtree makes his living on yards after the catch, particularly when snaking his way through the belly of the defense. If you can have a legit and successful burner occupying the secondary, it opens up big holes underneath. Ginn certainly has his hands issues and that is something I'll definitely be paying attention to throughout August. However, I really think the team is going to give him every last chance to make an impact.
Jason Hill is another guy that some may view as a bubble guy at best. He's spent chunks of time in Coach Singletary and Coach Sullivan's respective dog-houses over the last year and a half. After a solid sophomore season in which he made 30 catches (all after Singletary took over), Hill took a step back in 2009. My optimism comes in part from this report from Maiocco following training camp:
89-Jason Hill: Hill and Jones needed to impress with good offseasons. Jones did not take advantage of his opportunities. Hill did. In his first three seasons, Hill was never able to show much on the practice field. He was always seen as a "gamer" who played well when given his opportunities. But Hill practiced very well this offseason and has placed himself in position to seriously compete with Ginn for the job as the No. 3 receiver. In the past, he has shown his value as a good special-teams player, too.
If he is in fact showing improvement in practice, that would likely be sufficient to get him permanently out of the Singletary/Sullivan doghouse. If that happens, he'll find himself seeing more playing time right off the bat. And if Ginn's hands continue to betray him in training camp, I don't think anybody should be all that surprised to see him permanently move into that #3 position.
The remaining three (Williams, Jones, and Zeigler) are a tough group to figure out. Williams and Zeigler are both looking to bring something to the table on special teams to give the team one more reason to keep them around. When we last discussed Zeigler, I posted the following from Maiocco's minicamp recap:
17-Dominique Zeigler: He was back returning kickoffs on the final day of minicamp. You get the feeling that if Sullivan had his way, Zeigler would be among the receivers he carries on the team. Zeigler is always drawing praise from Sullivan on how he runs routes. And when others aren't as precise, Sullivan will advise them to watch Zeigler. He had a pretty good offseason program. He and Jason Hill had roughly the same number of catches behind starters Crabtree and Josh Morgan.
The battle between these three guys will be really interesting to watch. For Brandon Jones, his time in San Francisco has been quite the nightmare (minus the cashing of the paychecks, of course). After a solid start, injuries derailed his preseason, and they seem to be continuing on this year, as he suffered an ankle sprain a few weeks ago that kept him out minicamp drills. He's got serious ground to make up, and it remains to be seen if he can do it in the month of training camp. Odds can't be strong for him.
Given all of this, I've put together a poll looking at these final three wide receivers.