In what's starting to feel like a yearly tradition, the 49ers once again seem to be in position to consider a top wide receiver in the NFL Draft. The bad news is they haven't done so well of late in that area when they've tried. The good news is they could get another shot with a fairly impressive crop to choose from.
The 2014 NFL wide receiver draft class is possibly shaping up to be one of the best receiver classes of all time. The 2015 class has some mighty big shoes to fill and while not nearly as deep as 2014, this year's class is still very impressive and boasts several NFL caliber receivers.
My initial wide receiver rankings:
1. DeVante Parker - 6'3, 209lbs - Senior - Louisville - Projection: Top 15
2. Amari Cooper - 6'1, 210lbs - Redshirt Junior - Alabama - Projection: Top 15
3. Dorial Green-Beckham - 6'5, 225lbs - Redshirt Junior - Oklahoma - Projection: 1st round
4. Kevin White - 6'3, 210lbs - Senior - West Virginia - Projection: 1st round
5. Jaelen Strong - 6'3, 215lbs - Redshirt Junior - Arizona State - Projection: 1st round
6. Rashad Greene - 6'0, 180lbs - Senior - Florida State - Projection 2nd round
7. Sammie Coates - 6'2, 209lbs - Redshirt Junior - Auburn - Projection: 2nd round
8. Devin Funchess - 6'5, 230lbs - Junior - Michigan - Projection 2nd round
9. Nelson Agholor - 6'1, 190lbs - Junior - USC - Projection: 2nd/3rd round
10. Justin Hardy - 6'0, 188lbs - Senior - East Carolina - Projection: 3rd round
Just missed: Ty Montgomery, Stanford (6'2, 215lbs); Josh Harper, Fresno State (6'1, 185lbs); Vince Mayle, Washington State (6'3, 219lbs)
In what may be a surprise to some, Parker is atop my early receiver rankings. To be honest, it was a bit harder to separate the first four than I initially thought it would be.
With Parker, there may not be a better WR in the draft with a more impressive catch radius. This is important because it gives his QB a bit of leeway with the football. Parker's uncanny ability to consistently win in one-on-one situations downfield against some of the top corners in the country was really impressive. He may not be as fast as Cooper and he'll need to refine his route running but Parker will make an instant impact where ever he lands in 2015.
Cooper will be the overwhelming consensus number one receiver by most, and deservingly so. He possesses elite, game-breaking speed (even if he doesn't post a blazing forty time, Cooper is plenty "football fast") capable of breaking every play to the endzone. He does seem to struggle catching the ball in traffic at times and has been known to run incomplete routes. He reminds me some of Sammy Watkins (first round pick in 2014) in that I'm not sold on his ability to get open against long, physical defensive backs despite his speed.
Despite not playing in 2014 there's a really good chance that Dorial Green-Beckham ends up being selected in the first round. A prototypical frame and excellent speed (former high school champion in 100m) would have DGB drafted in the top 10-15 but some off the field issues paired with a full season away from the field will probably cause some to be a bit gun-shy at first (see Mathieu, Tyrann). Once he does get onto the field, his talent is undeniable. The speed and athleticism at his size and ability be physical and aggressive in his routes will be highly coveted come draft day.
White, like Parker, impresses with his size and consistent ability to win against one-on-one coverage downfield. White highpoints the ball with the best of them and utilizes his lanky frame, quickness, and long end speed to get open. I tend to worry about receivers who only put one productive year on tape. Combined with the air-raid style offense run at WVU could lead some to believe he's a product of the system.
A week and a half ago, Jaelen Strong was mocked to the 49ers by SB Nation's Dan Kadar. Strong is a big bodied and physical receiver who could be a nightmare for opposing defenses in the redzone. An above average athlete, Strong is still raw in his route running and it sometimes seems like his success comes from just being bigger than the opposing defensive back. He's probably a high 4.5 forty guy but does show good initial quickness and enough speed to be productive. If Strong can pull off a 4.4 at the combine I'd expect him to be a top 15-20 pick.
Rashad Greene is one of my favorite receivers in this class but his size and lack of dominance in any specific area gives pause. I've had the pleasure of watching Greene in person for the last four years and there may not be a more polished route runner or receiver with better understanding of route concepts than Greene. Greene is deceptively fast and could be a real nightmare in the slot. The biggest question will be if he can consistently win on the outside. If he shows well in that area at the Senior Bowl I wouldn't rule out a possible late first round selection.
After Sammie Coates made his draft intentions known last month, I predicted he'd quickly become many 49ers fans "draft crush". Why? Coates has that unique blend of size and speed (reportedly in the 4.3s) that NFL teams covet from their outside receivers and might be the most athletic receiver in this class. While still very raw in terms of route running, Coates projects as a bit of a long-term project but one that could make an immediate impact similarly to the Steelers' Martavis Bryant. I expect him to test extremely well at the combine.
There's a lot to like about Michigan's Devin Funchess. The former TE has that prototype build with height, weight, and length to create matchup problems from anywhere on the field. Funchess only has one year of true WR experience under his belt and struggles at time to consistently make catches in traffic. There are still some questions as to his role in the NFL and if he'll transition completely to WR or be used similarly to Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas as a "move" TE.
The 49ers have more holes to fill than some might think, including WR. Depending on how things shake up with free agency it wouldn't shock me to see the new coaching staff target two young receivers in the upcoming draft, ideally one that could make an impact right away and another high upside guy to bring along slowly.
I'll be revisiting these rankings throughout the offseason so don't be surprised to see some changes over the next few months.