This year’s group of 49er wide receivers are deemed the best under head coach Kyle Shanahan. San Francisco has a foundational mixture of talents that should unleash a new striking vertical offense. We will answer the looming questions for the five rostered wide receivers and look at a few plays to set the tone for the season below.
Can Aiyuk unlock his star potential?
I agree with Akash that Brandon Aiyuk will lead the 49ers in passes and catches. You can read his five hot takes for the 49ers’ 2022 season here. Shanahan had Aiyuk under a microscope last season, and tensions were eased when Aiyuk impacted the game.
The Aiyuk touchdown versus the Green Bay Packers in Week 3 was one of my favorite examples of Aiyuk redeeming himself last year. Aiyuk outgrew the rift with Shanahan by showing up when it matters. Accountability is significant in the NFL, and Aiyuk has owned everything Shanahan said.
An early glimpse of the Lance and Aiyuk stretching the field in 2022. The “Yac bros” have produced multiple quarterbacks, but Lance’s arm strength puts him in a different hemisphere. However, his deflating underthrow targeting Aiyuk versus the Houston Texans was a bit of a letdown. Look for the Lance to Aiyuk connection to be redeemed early versus the Chicago Bears Sunday.
This last play shows Aiyuk’s All-Pro potential. Explosive plays sell in the NFL, and Aiyuk can earn himself a hefty new deal with incredible plays like these.
Will the ‘wide back’ only play wide receiver this year?
Lance not being team captain with Jimmy Garoppolo on the roster is mildly alarming compared to Deebo Samuel not having a C patch. Samuel’s heroic efforts at wide back and receiver kept San Francisco’s offense afloat all year.
This 83-yard touchdown arguably saved Kyle Shanahan’s playoff hopes. However, Samuel made plays in numerous formations all over the field, and we’ll have to see if he is in a more reserved receiver role this year.
First, you see Samuel create an explosive play after recognizing man coverage. Then, the proof is in the pudding as to why Shanahan wants to give Samuel so many carries. Samuel has the best vision on the team and will continue to be a spark every time he touches the ball.
Samuel’s last effort is another “put the team on his back doe” play that set up a 49er touchdown. Shanahan’s offense can target more than the intermediate level of the field if Lance can nail his progressions.
Can Jennings continue to play at a high level?
Jauan Jennings showed why the 49ers kept him in the stable despite injuries when he showed he could use his 6-foot-3 frame. Jennings caught buzz in last year’s joint practices with the Los Angeles Chargers and kept the flame on third downs for the Niners through the regular season.
Every play in overtime feels like fourth down. Trailing in sudden death with playoff aspirations can feel like life and death, and I watched it on TV. Jennings catches this 50-50 ball with ice in his veins. Jennings can win at all three levels on the field and will be a key piece to a strong receiving core in San Francisco.
A fearless catch by Jennings on third down shows he “has that dog in him.” Jennings can be plugged anywhere and can have a solid contributing season. His physicality at the catch point should increase his targets.
How will the rookie Gray be used?
San Francisco selected Danny Gray out of SMU in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. The speedster will primarily line up in the slot with the threat of taking the top off any defense. Coaches will always say, “ you can’t coach speed or size.”
Gray had some inconsistencies in the preseason (as a rookie receiver should), but overall he looks to be a contributor in his first year. Stretching the defense vertically will be a new theme for San Francisco’s offense, and Gray nearly does that on every play. He can split two-high safeties from the slot, run past cornerbacks at any time, and turn upfield on speed outs. The three-play reel may not scream “All-Rookie” team, but it gives you a glimpse of how dynamic this 49er receiver core is.
Special teamer looking to become a reliable pass-catcher
Last but not least, we have former Pittsburgh Steelers Ray-Ray McCloud. McCloud led the NFL in punt return yards and had his most productive season as a receiver last year. That will only grow in an offense that’s known to share the wealth.
I expect McCloud to be used in a Rich James-like role where explosive plays will be there for the taking. I hate to compare McCloud to James’ lackluster production, but James was given several opportunities as a mid-intermediate to a deep threat. McCloud will have to prove he won’t turn the ball over, or we may see him in the dog house.
None of these receivers can produce without opportunity, starting with Kyle Shanahan and the quarterback. The receivers can minimize turnovers by avoiding drops, running clean routes, and winning in one-on-one situations. San Francisco has too many ball winners that can create an explosive offense to have a dull offense. Lance has several weapons on hand for the Chicago Bears. It’s normal if the 49ers get off to a dull start; shoot, I’m sure several teams will, with the NFL kicking off with Week 1.