It took much longer than most expected, but the San Francisco 49ers added another wide receiver to the mix in the fourth round with their sixth selection in the NFL Draft. Bruce Ellington, a junior out of South Carolina, joins the 49ers in what is suddenly a crowded bottom half of the depth chart at the wide receiver position.
Ellington didn't have high-end production by traditional measures – though he did increase his receiving yardage, yards per catch, receptions and touchdowns in each of his three seasons at South Carolina peaking at a 49-775-8 line in his final season in the college ranks. He did have a very respectable Playmaker Rating – which I covered in more depth prior to the draft – of 82.4 percent, indicating his production per team passing attempt is a bit better than his standard statistics might lead you to believe.
While there are certainly things we can glean from statistical projections such as Playmaker Rating, in this case the best way to see what Ellington can bring to the 49ers' offense is by going to the tape. So let's turn on our virtual projector and get to it.
Hands and Body Control
It seems natural to start with hands when evaluating a wide receiver and that's where we'll begin with Ellington. Unfortunately, this is an area that could use some work. Drops weren't a problem in the games that I watched (there was only one), but Ellington has a tendency to let the ball get in close to his body rather than extending to catch the ball away from his body and, therefore, away from the defender. It's not quite Vernon Davis bad, where he's making body catches, but it's certainly not ideal. Catching the ball away from your frame isn't the easiest skill for a wide receiver to learn, but it's not a deal-breaker either. Thankfully, Ellington has a few other traits that help to counteract this.
Ellington is very good at catching contested passes and absorbing contact at the time of the catch and still hanging on to the ball. The danger with letting the ball get close to your body is that it gives the defender a greater chance of being able to get his hand on it while also potentially making it more difficult to keep control of the pass when taking a hit. That doesn't seem to be a problem for Ellington, as I watched him make several receptions while simultaneously absorbing a shot from a defender. This in an important skill to have as contested receptions are the norm at the NFL level, where separation isn't as easy to come by.
During his time at South Carolina, Ellington was also the starting point guard for the school's basketball team and the basketball influence shows in his game. Ellington's body control when adjusting to off-target passes is excellent. He's often able to contort his body with fluid movements that allow him to keep his balance and remain on his feet after the catch.
This is the area of Ellington's game that needs the most work. His biggest issue comes when he's at the top of his route stem and is about to make his break. Ellington often takes several, unnecessary choppy steps at the top of his route, tipping off the fact that he's about to break. This also slows his momentum, forcing him to have to reaccelerate after the break.
There are occasionally plays where he gets a little lazy at the top of his route and you don't get much of a "break" at all. These are issues that can be easily corrected as long as he puts the work in. I suspect wide receivers coach John Morton will be spending a lot time with Ellington correcting these issues throughout the offseason program and his improvement in this area will be something to keep an eye out for come preseason time. I don't anticipate this being a huge issue as Ellington definitely has the agility and suddenness in his movement to become a skilled route runner.
Ellington has the potential to be a very effective player on vertical routes. His top end speed is good and his acceleration is even better. Most of the vertical routes that I watched (highlighted in the above video) came out of the slot against off man coverage. Ellington is able to blow by defenders with ease, getting as much as 4-5 yards of separation at times. It won't be that easy going forward, but this should still be an area of strength for him.
One thing I didn't get to see Ellington do much of was defeat the press. As we are acutely aware of due to having to play Seattle twice per season, beating the press is one of the most important skills a wide receiver needs to possess to have success in the NFL. Unfortunately, there just weren't any plays that I watched where he was forced to do this. I suspect that this was mostly a result of Ellington's speed combined with the fact college cornerbacks aren't as skilled at press coverage, but it will be another thing to monitor once the preseason comes around. His size could potentially be an issue here, but this is another area in which his suddenness should benefit him.
Ability After the Catch
Ellington's ability to do damage after the catch is perhaps his greatest attribute. It's another area in which the basketball influence is very prevalent. Basketball players frequently work in tight quarters – think point guard driving through the lane towards the basket – and have to make sudden moves to get by or gain separation from their defender. Ellington possesses this ability at a high level. He's very comfortable with bodies around him and has the balance to string together successive moves without stumbling and falling on his face.
Ellington uses his blockers well and knows how to patiently setup his blocks. He doesn't waste time dancing after the catch, instead looking to immediately get upfield and maximize his yardage after the catch. If he gets into the open field, Ellington is the type of athlete that can do a lot of damage and create some big plays for his offense. His vision is very good and he flashes that point guard ability of being a step ahead of the defense.
Strength is an unexpected asset here, as Ellington is unfazed by arm tackles. His balance allows him to absorb hits and bounce off if defenders fail to wrap up. He also seems to always find a way to fall forward when he does finally go down.
Blocking and Physicality
It's impossible to bring up Bruce Ellington, or nearly any prospect for that matter, without talking about his size. The 5-foot-9-inch Ellington will easily be the shortest wide receiver on the roster with a chance of actually seeing the field. He certainly doesn't fit into the typical 49ers receiver mold that we've come to know in the Harbaalke era. However, the good news is that he plays much larger than his size. At 197 pounds, Ellington has some thickness to him and is actually a very physical player.
I've hinted at his physicality a few times when referencing his ability to absorb hits when catching the ball and while running after the catch. Another area that it shows up, which I'm sure the coaching staff loved, is in his blocking. Ellington is a very willing blocker on run plays and screens. He's not afraid to mix it up with larger players as well. There were several instances (which you can see in the above video) where Ellington would motion down into a wing position just off the tight end and have to take on a linebacker, a few times in short-yardage situations. More often than not, he was very effective when doing so. It's rarely flashy and it's not like he's out there pancaking people, but he's constantly showing effort and is doing enough to get the job done, which is about all you can ask of a wide receiver.
How Does He Fit?
The addition of Stevie Johnson to the roster likely means a Crabtree/Boldin/Johnson top of the depth chart is set. This means that Ellington will be competing with Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd, Jon Baldwin and Kassim Osgood for what will probably be a max of three spots. The odds of him failing to make the roster are very low in my mind, but even so playing time during his rookie season is likely to be slim. At this point it would be a big upset – and an even bigger disappointment – if the 49ers don't increase the amount of three-receiver sets this year. Even so, they won't be turning into the Packers or the Broncos any time soon and barring injury Crabtree, Boldin and Johnson are likely to see the bulk of the snaps.
The 49ers have used a bit of a rotation at wide receiver in the past, looking to get a variety of different packages (perhaps pairings is more accurate?) of pass catchers on the field and there's no reason to believe that won't be the case again this season. Once Ellington does make it on the field, it will be interesting to see how Harbaugh and Roman choose to use him. He has a different skill set that the other receivers on the roster, but he did most of his work out of the slot in college, something that Crabtree and Boldin also do very effectively.
He has the speed to stretch the field vertically and like Vernon Davis, typically does so from the middle of the field. Bubble and spot screens are obvious ways to get him the ball quickly and allow him to use his ability to create after the catch. The de facto screens we occasionally see in which an outside receiver – typically Crabtree – runs a short in-breaking route underneath several other receivers who are blocking would be another way to get Ellington the ball in space.
Ellington's toughness and the suddenness in his movements should allow him to work the middle of the field underneath, finding soft spots to settle in and provide Colin Kaepernick with another safety valve.
The 49ers uncharacteristically chose two undersized players in this year's draft. Both players, Ellington and first-round pick Jimmie Ward, share many traits and it's easy to see why the 49ers like them. They're physical players who play larger than their size and they are both fluid athletes who bring something to the table that the 49ers didn't previously have. San Francisco's recent track record of drafting and developing wide receivers hasn't been great, but the tools are there for Ellington to offer something right away while developing into an effective third receiver.