The question of who the 49ers will draft to upgrade their receiving corps has been a hot topic here on Niners Nation. Few would disagree that the lack of production from the 49ers wide receivers in 2011 was a major reason why the team didn't exactly light up the scoreboard. After Alex Smith only completed a single solitary pass to a wide receiver vs. the New York Giants -- and the team lost (the story might be different had they won), most 49er fans probably decided "OK, that's why wide receiver is our number one need for next season."
But how should that need be addressed? Some would say that it already has been addressed with the additions of Mario Manningham and Randy Moss. Others would say that the team should sign Terrell Owens. Ha ha, ok, yeah that's just Terrell Owens saying that the 49ers should sign Terrell Owens. Others yet would say that the 49ers should look to the draft and to developing one of the incoming class of receivers, which is said to be among the deepest and most talented in recent years.
This piece will address the somewhat philosophical question of which kinds of wide receiver the 49ers should target by focusing on a particular pair of receivers who have a good chance at being available when the 49ers pick in round 1: LSU's Rueben Randle and Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill. Follow me after the jump to delve deeper into the reasoning about which player the 49ers should draft.The Job Description:
Before I get into the question of which receiver the 49ers should draft, I need to make clear what role the 49ers would want this receiver to play. It's what is called the "x-iso receiver." This receiver is responsible for playing on the side of the formation that is opposite the tight end. So if the 49ers were running a two-back set with Gore and Miller, and Vernon Davis lined up beside Anthony Davis with Crabtree split wide to the right, the x-iso receiver would be split out wide to the left, basically working the entire left side of the field likely manned up against a corner with a safety giving some help over the top. This receiver is responsible for getting open against man coverage or against a double-team, if the defense shades the coverage over to that side. Basically, this receiver would play the role that the 49ers signed Braylon Edwards to play, and in which he failed (due to a lack of skill or injury or what have you). This receiver will typically be a "big-bodied" guy
The Philosophical Issue of Who To Draft:
This post was inspired by an interesting article by Matt Waldman who writes the following about the factors talent evaluators have in their mind when ranking prospects:
"I would rather give higher scores to prospect that I believe possess baseline skills that will help them negate the slow athletic decline that comes with age. These skills in wide receivers include great hands, good routes, and a willingness and track record of success engaging in physical play."
What Waldman is getting at is that he would rather draft a guy that has the baseline of athleticism necessary to play in the league, but on top of that, has the savvy to adjust to the complex defenses he will see in the NFL and to get open. When he makes this remark, he is explicitly comparing some of the top Wide Receiver prospects from this draft: he says he would rank prospects like Greg Childs and Marvin Jones higher than Stephen Hill or Chris Givens on this basis.
While he doesn't mention Rueben Randle, he could very well have done so, because Randle was surprisingly productive in LSU's offense despite a very limited offense and downright bad quarterback play. Moreover, Greg Cosell, in his recent blog post analyzing the Wide Receiver class compared Rueben Randle to Hakeem Nicks, who was also drafted at the end of the first round, and is something of the prototype x-iso receiver in the New York Giants' fairly traditional offense.
While Randle certainly possesses the baseline physical traits necessary to play the pro position, few would confuse the 6'2"7/8, 210 pound Randle with the 6'4" 215 pound Stephen Hill when it comes to athleticism. Stephen Hill blew up at the NFL Combine by running the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds officially, which was the second fastest of all the athletes in Indianapolis and the fastest among the offensive players. That kind of speed would certainly be a benefit to a person facing double-teams. If Hill can beat the jam and get up the sideline faster than that Safety playing center field can make it over, he can be wide open for a big play, Randy-Moss-style. But when it comes to the attributes like route savvy, good hands, and a track record of success engaging in physical play, Randle would likely get the edge, because whereas Hill played in a run-heavy triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, Randle faced top defenses each week in a more traditional scheme.
But is that level of athleticism necessary for what the 49ers want to do with their offense? And is the amount of a speed upgrade that Hill provides worth it relative to what Randle would offer? This is a particularly relevant question given Baalke's track record from last year's draft. He was willing to take the unpolished and raw prospects Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick over more proven options like Robert Quinn or Ryan Kerrigan and Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton. Obviously there are a bunch of other options than Randle and hill, but these two seem to be in the mix for the end-of-the-first-round range, and both seem suited to play the x-iso spot for the 49ers -- and there are fewer character concerns with these two than with Alshon Jeffery, for example.
What do you think? Who do you think the 49ers would draft to be the x-iso receiver? And most importantly, why?