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49ers positional review: Wide receiver has more questions than answers

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This will likely be the most talked about position over the next couple of months

Divisional Round - Minnesota Vikings v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

We’ve gone over the San Francisco 49ers quarterback and running back situation. Those are two positions the offense should feel good about heading into 2020. As for wide receiver? There are some questions the team needs to ask themselves. Before we ask those “three burning questions,” let’s recap how the receivers performed this season.

Samuel stole the show

The 49ers drafted Deebo Samuel at the top of the second round in the 2019 NFL Draft. It didn’t take long for him to make an impact, as Samuel’s first reception came, naturally, on a slant where he had to reach out and make a tough grab. Deebo then spun off a tackle and kept running. Samuel led all wide receivers in broken tackles. Only one receiver averaged more yards after the catch than Samuel, who finished his rookie campaign with 57 receptions—32 of which that went for first downs—and 802 yards. Drops were an issue, and that’s an area where Samuel must improve if he is going to be the. 49ers top threat moving forward. There’s not much negative you can say about Samuel in 2019. He was fantastic, and all of the Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin comparisons rang true.

Dancing his way up the depth chart

Kendrick Bourne was a reliable receiver in 2019. The 49ers didn’t rely on him much, as he only saw more than five targets in a game three times during the season. That doesn’t mean Bourne didn’t make an impact. Of his 36 receptions, 28 went for first downs, and six others went for touchdowns. When the 49ers needed to make a play, especially on early downs in the red zone, Bourne came through.

The 49ers need to ask themselves if this is a receiver they want to build around, or do they need to upgrade at the position? Bourne was good in his role. The tricky part about roster-building is figuring how whether a player is maxed out. What I’d ask is, “can we get back to the Super Bowl with Bourne as our No. 3 receiver?” Bourne isn’t in any danger of being cut. He shouldn’t be. I do think the team needs to let the competition play itself out during training camp, though.

Can you rely on Trent?

One of the more difficult decisions San Francisco faces this offseason is whether they can rely on slot receiver Trent Taylor for an entire season. Taylor suffered two separate injuries during the summer and a setback that eventually cost him the season. The good news is Jimmy Garoppolo’s preseason security blanket expects to be cleared medically, and that could be as soon as this week. There’s no doubt a healthy Taylor makes this offense better. Last training camp was the best version of Taylor, so it won’t be a surprise to see him roll out there with the starters come training camp if healthy. But can the team rely on him? That’s another story, and something the Niners need to ask themselves as they make critical decisions this offseason.

Wildcards

Jalen Hurd flashed a skillset this preseason that isn’t on the roster. A jump ball receiver that plays big and can get you touchdowns. Hurd caught an end-zone fade as well as breaking a tackle to score another tuddy. Hurd is a promising prospect that the team hopes with a year removed from a back injury comes back stronger than ever.

The wildcard is Richie James. Asking some of the players about James, and everyone believes he can be a star. He may be the fastest and quickest, but James is an underrated route runner. James can stand to get stronger and improve his balance out of routes, but he’s a sneaky candidate to contribute next season. While James didn’t get many targets, there were plenty of times where James was open underneath this season. He showed flashes of a poor man’s TY Hilton—which is a compliment. James has a future in this league, and hopefully on the 49ers.

Hotel Pettis

One of the funniest comments this month was someone referencing Dante Pettis being in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse, but referring to it as “Hotel Pettis.” It was a bizarre season for the second-year wideout. Pettis came into the season with sky-high expectations. In the first two games, Pettis had one total target. The next game Pettis caught the game-winning touchdown and appeared to be turning the corner. He didn’t have another noteworthy play until Week 9, where he caught a touchdown on Halloween. Pettis didn’t step on the field after Week 12.

There were injuries in the preseason that threw Pettis’s season off. A groin injury and a pectoral injury, then late November, there was a knee injury scare. It was a season to forget after a promising rookie year, but it isn’t very smart to write off Pettis. The timing isn’t great, considering he was benched, but I can see a Year 3 jump similar to what happened with Ahkello Witherspoon. Pettis is far too talented to give up on. I think he has a chance to be a significant contributor next season.

Age ain’t nothing but a number

On Tuesday, Emmanuel Sanders went on a Twitter rant:

In Sanders’ defense, he did run by the Kansas City Chiefs, but he also had a few nice routes in the game that you don’t see anyone else on the roster run. He’s really that good. In the front office’s defense, where teams get themselves in trouble is paying players for past production. Sanders is 32-years old and hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. He’s an outstanding player that is the best receiver on the best team in the NFC. I want to make that clear. The issue is whether Sanders stays healthy and performs up to the double-digit millions you’re going to pay him.

I don’t envy John Lynch and company. It seems like an impossible decision to make that you’ll be wrong about no matter what. You can form strong arguments either way whether to bring Sanders back or move on from him. Whatever decision the 49ers make, it’ll be because what’s on the roster. If they’re willing to pay Sanders, that’s a sign they’re not confident in the unproven talent on the roster. If the 49ers let Sanders walk, it’s either because they trust the names that have been discussed, or because another team offered an amount that can’t be matched.