This has been a rough year for the 49ers at the wide receiver position, as the ACL tear of starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo and the uninspired play of second string QB C.J. Beathard, combined with injuries to veterans Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin.
George Kittle is a very talented tight end, but his success has also come from the fact that he didn’t have much competition from the receiver corps.
Now things are starting to look up, with Nick Mullens at the helm and more playing time for younger receivers. Let’s look at the present and future prospects of the team’s young pass catchers: second year men Trent Taylor and Kendrick Bourne, and rookies Dante Pettis and Richie James, Jr.
Taylor was a very promising slot receiver in his rookie season, hauling in 430 yards and serving as a first down machine: he had 27 FDs on just 60 targets, almost a 50% first down rate. However, Taylor had surgery in the off-season to remove bone spurs in his back, and he has struggled with back issues all season.
He has played in 11 of 13 games, but Taylor’s production is way off; just 167 yards and 9 FDs on 33 targets, with 3 games to go. I can’t remember who I heard it from, but this saying haunts me: “No one used to have a bad back.”
And it’s true, I can’t think of any people who had serious back problems that are now fine. It’s weird that doctors can reprogram DNA but they still haven’t figured out to mend a spine, which is basically just a ladder made out of bone. You’d think they could just pour in some cement-type material into the bone and rebuild it. But no surgery exists that can consistently cure back troubles.
Taylor had a big 3rd down catch to clinch the Broncos game, and it’s possible that he will be the rare guy to heal up a bad back. But it’s hard to be optimistic about his NFL future.
Unlike Taylor, Kendrick Bourne has been very steady and productive, up to a point; however, he’s just not that talented. A teammate of Cooper Kupp and Vernon Adams, Jr. at Eastern Washington University, the 6’1” UDFA found a niche as the tallest receiver in a very thin Niners receiving corps. He’s basically a very slow (4.68 in the 40) possession receiver (21 FDs on 51 targets this year.)
For now, the Niners are happy to have his 339 yards and 3 touchdowns. He’s a hard-working, smart kid and it’s hard not to root for him. As this roster improves, though, he could easily find himself on the outside looking in.
Richie James, Jr.
The two rookies are fighting to replace Taylor and Bourne. Seventh round pick Richie James, Jr. is also a slot receiver and has a great opportunity to take Trent Taylor’s job this summer. He has awesome hair, to boot.
Like many rookies, he had trouble getting regular snaps his rookie season, with just eight pass targets in ten games. (He has done pretty well on them, though, with 5 receptions, two first downs and an impressive 18.8 yards/catch average.)
And like 3rd day draft picks and UDFAs, he has looked to make his mark on special teams. It hasn’t gone that well. though, as he lost his punt-returning role to Taylor after muffing punts in the last two games (Seattle and Denver). He has shown flashes, including a 42-yard kickoff return agains the Seahawks, but it won’t be easy for him to earn back the coaches’ trust.
It’s way too early to write off James, Jr.’s future, but at this point the highest grade you can give him would be “Incomplete.”
The biggest success so far has been Dante Pettis, which makes sense given his second round draft pick (#44 overall). His 363 yards and 5 TDs lead all Niners WRs (though he’s just barely ahead of Marquise Goodwin (359/4) and Bourne (339/3), and way behind tight end George Kittle, who has 1,100 yards on the season and ran off 210 just in the first half against Denver.)
The really thing about Pettis is that he’s just getting going. The cat fancier missed three weeks in October with a knee injury, and muffed a punt return in his first game back, so he only got one target in his first two games back (and it was incomplete). Since then he has really taken off with 255 yards and 4 touchdowns just in the last 3 games.
The rookie provides big play potential that only Kittle and Goodwin offer otherwise on this roster; he averages 19.1 yards per carry, and 8 of his 19 pass receptions this year have been for over 20 yards.
He is also great at yards after catch, a huge plus with a coach as clever at scheming receivers open as Kyle Shanahan is. When he was drafted, fans naturally focused on his punt returning skills, since he held the college record for return touchdowns. The team hasn’t used him on special teams much, perhaps because they can’t afford to lose him as a receiver if injured. But the same elusiveness and skill at setting up blocks has made him very effective in piling up YAC.
Check out his first touchdown against Seattle:
Pettis didn’t run a 40-yard dash at either the Combine or his college Pro Day, but he clearly has burst and long speed, as his second (75-yard) TD against the ‘Hawks demonstrated:
This is crucial for a team where the oft-injured Marquise Goodwin is the only other deep threat. If they can both stay healthy, Kyle Shanahan can design some deep shot plays that will seriously stress any single high safety coverage.
Like Bourne, Pettis is also 6’1”, but not slow at all, and has a famous wiggle to his route running that immediately impressed NFL veterans, even in training camp. You can see why the Niners traded up for him. This 3rd and 7 play against Denver highlights his elusiveness in getting separation, as well as his post-catch moves and long speed. (Pettis is at the top of your screen.)
I wish I had better news for you. Kyle Shanahan has always done best with a top wide receiver on his team — is Julio Jones top enough for you? — but if this team wants to become the Super Bowl contender they say they do, then Dante Pettis is probably the only keeper among the team’s young wide receivers.