Draft status has rarely meant much to Kyle Shanahan when it comes to assembling his 53-man roster. The 49ers head coach is not shy about parting with players in whom the franchise invested day-two and early day-three selections over the years.
Joe Williams was cut before the season started in 2017, third-rounder Trey Sermon lasted only one year after being picked in 2021 and 2018 second-round selection Dante Pettis failed to make it through his first three seasons before being waived.
It stands to reason, then, that any player picked in last year’s draft who did not have much of an impact as a rookie has cause to be nervous about their position on the roster.
Running back Tyrion Davis-Price and wide receiver Danny Gray each struggled to justify their respective third-round selections in the 2022 campaign. Gray had only two offensive touches for 19 yards, while Davis-Price fared a little better, finishing the season with 99 yards on 34 carries as his role was diminished by the arrival of Christian McCaffrey and the emergence of undrafted rookie Jordan Mason.
Of the two, however, it is Gray who would appear to be under the most severe pressure.
Carving out a role in the 49er passing game as a rookie was always likely to be difficult for Gray given the level of talent in front of him, but his apparent inability to find a way out of Shanahan’s ‘doghouse’ was a red flag
In Gray’s case, there is important additional context. He was drafted in part as the downfield threat the 49ers have long since lacked, yet the need for his speed decreased when Trey Lance suffered a season-ending injury, with Jimmy Garoppolo a quarterback rarely inclined to push the ball on throws over 20 air yards.
If Brock Purdy’s recovery from elbow surgery goes to plan, and he returns as the 49ers’ starter, there may be more short plays called for a quarterback who attempted 20 throws of 20 air yards or more in a season where he made only five regular-season starts. Garoppolo started 10 games but attempted only 31 throws of that distance.
However, with increased competition at the bottom of the receiver depth chart, there is a case to be made that Gray’s spot on the roster could be in jeopardy.
The 49ers will likely carry at most six receivers on the roster. That number could become five following a draft in which the 49ers selected two tight ends, increasing the chance of them rostering four players at that position.
With the Niners potentially set to rely more on two tight end sets and able to get to five wide in a variety of fashions following the acquisition of McCaffrey, there is less need for six wideouts on the roster.
Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings will take three of the slots on the depth chart, and Gray is no lock to help make up the rest of it.
Ray-Ray McCloud, signed to a two-year contract last offseason, and rookie seventh-round pick Ronnie Bell will each hope to land on the 53 and could each claim to have an edge over Gray.
McCloud accounted for 321 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns last season. The 49ers’ primary return man last year, McCloud and Bell both bring upside in that area, with Shanahan and Lynch having pointed to the return game as a factor into their decision to draft the latter.
Ronnie Bell offers elusiveness, contact balance and determination as a runner in the open field. Easy to see why the 49ers took a late-round flier. pic.twitter.com/RM2Wt8KpDi— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 4, 2023
Bell, with his success in making tough catches over the middle at Michigan, his inside-out versatility and his proficiency in evading and slipping through tackles to gain yardage after the catch, also has a lot to offer on offense, having bounced back from a season-ending injury in 2021 to rack up a career-high 912 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns in his final campaign with the Wolverines.
His arrival could well complicate Gray’s path to a second year with the Niners, who also signed Chris Conley, Willie Snead IV and undrafted free agent Isaiah Winstead — who received a lot of Twitter buzz after he posted about an apparent lack of interest from the NFL prior to landing with San Francisco.
The 49ers’ receiver room is crowded but, given how highly the Niners thought of Gray a year ago, the likelihood is that he will remain on the roster. Still, there is a risk that, if he is not ready to hit the ground running during the offseason, he could soon find himself following in the footsteps of Williams and Sermon.