Each year, we run a series of post called "90-in–90" here at Niners Nation. The idea is that we’ll take a look at every single player on the roster, from the very bottom to the top and break them down a few different ways. This is to help give everyone a basic understanding of a roster. Of course, this roster will change, and some days we’ll have more than one so it’s not strictly one per day but Fooch is a crazy person who manages this blog with no rhyme or reason and it’s worked so far. Who am I to argue?
Bruce Ellington came to the 49ers in as someone who could add speed and dynamism to a wide receiver position dominated by big, possession receivers. Undersized, at 5’9" and just shy of 200 pounds, Ellington was the epitome of an athlete. A starting point guard at South Carolina, Ellington had a fluidity that could thrive in the slot.
That athleticism and burst translated into a solid, but unspectacular, rookie season as the primary kick returner. Easily where the rookie receiver provided his biggest contribution, Ellington averaged 8.2 yards per punt return, and over 25 yards on kick returns.
But it wasn’t until late in the season when we saw why so many were high on Ellington coming into 2014.
Why he might improve
Ellington might actually get some playing time. Jim Harbaugh’s offense seemingly had an extreme aversion to playing rookies at the skill positions. He didn’t get much playing time until injuries to Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, and Brandon Lloyd forced Ellington into action as a wide receiver. With just 12 targets on the season, rookies like Philly Brown saw more action than Ellington. If you knew who Philly Brown was without googling him or clicking the link you’re a better man than me.
When given playing time, Ellington showed off his versatility, speed, and explosion. Against San Digeo Ellington was a shining light on an extinguishing season. The final box score had Ellington with three carries, six returns, and two touchdowns.
On both the TD reception and the TD run, Ellington showed the speed to stress defenses vertically, and the strength to break through defensive holds.
And if you look at his preseason tape, you also see a player that can make life on cornerbacks difficult. Remember, the preseason Ellington wore number 3.
The DB aligns with inside leverage, guarding against a slant. At the snap, Ellington closes the distance quickly, makes a move outside to get the corner to make a false step, gets into the defender’s body, then breaks inside. That's pretty solid technique displaying how Ellington can create separation, even in tight spaces.
Why he might regress
Due to Ellington’s size and shiftiness, he is best suited for the slot. However, Anquan Boldin is still the best slot receiver the 49ers have on the roster. He was targeted 20.3 percent of times he lined up in the slot (fourth in the NFL), and his 72.9 percent catch rate in the slot ranked him third in the NFL1. If Ellington can’t get playing time in the slot, he might not get much playing time at all. And in order to progress and produce, Ellington will simply need to get more playing time.
The worry with Ellington’s size was his durability. During his rookie campaign, Ellington injured his ankle against New Orleans and missed a few weeks. He had a hamstring injury leading up to week 17, but played anyway. This offseason, Ellington continued to be sidelined by a hamstring injury. Quite simply if Ellington cannot stay on the field, he cannot make an impact.
Unless he’s injured, I don’t see Ellington regressing as a punt and kick returner. If he does, it will likely be because the people blocking in front of him just aren’t very good.
Odds of making the roster
Clearly Ellington will make the roster. He’s the starting punt and kick returner and he’s a solid one at that. The question is really about his role on offense.
If he gets playing time, and is used creatively, Ellington has the athleticism and explosion to make positive plays on offense. He is my favorite candidate for the 49ers breakout wide receiver. However, if Ellington is injured and/or the coaches choose to go with Boldin in the slot then Ellington’s role will be limited and we’ll see another season where potential tops production.
Based on receivers that played at least 50% of their teams offensive snaps. ↩