It's no surprise that the most glaring need on the current 49ers roster is wide receiver. Most thought 49ers did an amicable job of addressing the need last offseason when they acquired Anquan Boldin from Baltimore and drafted Quinton Patton out of Louisiana Tech in the fourth round.
At the time, a receiving corps of Michael Crabtree, Boldin, Patton, Kyle Williams and A.J. Jenkins (not to mention the anticipated return of Mario Manningham) seemed more than suitable when paired with Vernon Davis at tight end and Frank Gore in the backfield.
Then Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Still, most thought the 49ers would be at least okay at wide receiver. The offensive output during week one against Green Bay seemingly confirmed that. Colin Kaepernick threw for 414 yards and Bolidn looked unstoppable collecting 208 yards.
That's when the wheels fell off in the passing game. Since that performance the 49ers have fallen to 32nd in passing yards per game with 168 and 29th in total offensive yards with 309 per game. Additionally, Kaepernick hasn't been the leading passer in a game since that week one game against Green Bay.
So, is the problem at quarterback? There's no doubt Kaepernick shoulders some of the responsibility. After all, it's a quarterback-driven league.
However, I'm more inclined to think Kap's season would look a lot different with a healthy Crabtree and just average production from the third, fourth, and fifth receivers. Instead, as it stands today Bruce Miller is the 49ers third leading receiver with 16 receptions for 176 yards. Frank Gore is fourth. Vance McDonald is fifth. You don't find a second wide receiver on the list until you get to Mario Manningham. He's sixth and he just returned to action two weeks ago! Let that sink in a bit. Then consider that of the initial six projected receivers from last off-season, only two remain on the active roster (Boldin and Manningham).
As it stands now, the 49ers have 13 picks in the 2014 draft including six in the first three rounds: a mid-to-late first round pick, two seconds (thank you Alex Smith!), and three thirds (assuming the compensatory pick for losing Dashon Goldson is a third). Any trade up the draft board to get one of the top two receivers is likely to cost the 49ers at least one future first round draft pick and possibly a second.
Without further ado, here are my, admittedly way to early, top ten wide receivers in the upcoming 2014 NFL Draft:
1. Mike Evans 6-5 225lbs - RS Sophomore - Texas A&M
2. Sammy Watkins 6-1 205lbs - Junior - Clemson
3. Marqise Lee 6-0 195lbs - Junior - USC
4. Jordan Matthews 6-3 205lbs - Senior - Vanderbilt
5. Odell Beckham, Jr. 6-0 193lbs - Junior - LSU
6. Allen Robinson 6-3 211lbs - Junior - Penn State
7. Jarvis Landry: 6-0 195lbs - Junior - Purdue
8. Paul Richardson 6-1 172lbs - RS Junior - Colorado
9. Jared Abbraderis 6-1 190lbs - RS Senior - Wisconsin
10. Kelvin Benjamin 6-5 234lbs - RS Sophomore - Florida State
I feel really good about my top four and would be happy to land any of them in the first round. But two receivers separate themselves rather easily at the head of the class.
I was surprised at how much I liked Mike Evans. With that size and a reported 4.55 forty time, Evans has the making of a dominate wide receiver. Evans had an impressive redshirt freshman campaign in 2012 posting 82 receptions for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns. He's followed that performance up with 52 receptions, 1,147 yards and 12 touchdowns so far in 2013.
Evans' size and speed make him a physically imposing receiver capable of beating double teams, stretching the field, and going over the middle. He's a bit raw in terms of route running but nothing that isn't correctable. He may or may not be first receiver off the board, but if he slides out of the top ten, the 49ers could be inclined to make a move.
Sammy Watkins could have been the first receiver off the board last year. But a sophomore slump combined with injuries and off the field issues persuaded the former All-American to return for his junior season at Clemson.
Watkins' ceiling might be higher than any other receiver on the board. He has potential to be in a class of his own. Watkins has the size, speed, athleticism, and the ability to take every ball he touches to the end zone. Here are his stats through roughly three years:
2011: 82 receptions, 1,219 yards, 12 touchdowns
2012: 57 receptions, 708 yards, three touchdowns
2013*: 71 receptions, 1086 yards, nine touchdowns
*through ten games
Watkins does have some off the field concerns following his arrest on marijuana possession in 2012 that led to a two game suspension. That and some nagging injuries led to a disappointing 2012 but he's clearly bounced back in 2013.
I've seen Watkins play in person a few times. He's extremely talented. However, I've also seen him have trouble with beating the press with big physical corners. He's also had some questions about his hands although he has limited his drops in 2013.
Overall, I'm not sure you can go wrong with either Evans or Watkins.
Other names in the top ten I encourage you to keep an eye on are:
- Jordan Matthews: Distant cousin of former Niner great Jerry Rice. Matthews has produced since the day he stepped foot on campus. He broke the SEC record for most career completions last year as a junior.
- Paul Richardson: A big undersized (weight-wise) but is an absolute burner. He sort of reminds me some of Mike Wallace. He's been very productive a year after tearing his ACL.
- Kelvin Benjamin: Like Evans, Benjamin is a physical freak. Not as polished as Evans, yet, Benjamin has shown incredible progression in the three years he's been at Florida State. He could benefit from one more year in college. If he does return to school, I predict he will be a first round pick in 2015.