Position profile: Wide receivers

The 49ers have five players under contract who will be fighting for roster spots/playing time at wide receiver next season. They will unquestionably add some players to the competition – such as a draft pick with return ability and/or some undrafted free agents.


The organization seems very happy with the top part of this group with Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan as the starters. The next tier includes Brandon Jones and Jason Hill fighting to get on the playing field. After all, the 49ers never once had four wideouts on the field at the same time in 2009 because of Jimmy Raye’s reluctance to replace either tight end Vernon Davis or versatile back Frank Gore.


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If Crabtree had signed on time, the 49ers would’ve gotten him for five years. Because the contract stalemate stretched into the regular season, the 49ers signed him for six years. All things considered, his first season was remarkable.


posCrab.jpgHe did not run a route at full speed during the offseason program because of his rehabilitation from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. He missed all of training camp AND the first four weeks of the regular season. He signed with the club on Oct. 7 and was not active for the next game. But after the bye week, he worked his way into the starting lineup.


Crabtree caught 48 passes for 625 yards and two touchdowns. Despite playing just 11 games, Crabtree posted the best numbers for a rookie 49ers receiver since Jerry Rice caught 48 passes for 927 yards and three TDs in 1985. (Rice was pretty much unstoppable after a 10-catch, 241-yard game late in his rookie season against the Rams.)


Of course, that is where those comparisons end.


Crabtree will never approach Rice-types of numbers for a number of reasons – not the least of which is that Rice is, without question, in the conversation when the topic turns to the greatest football players of all time.


Perhaps a more compelling argument is whether Josh Morgan can be a John Taylor-type receiver. That is, can Morgan serve as a complement to the No. 1 guy? Again, the statistics are always going to be skewed because the 49ers of the 80’s and 90’s had an unprecedented run of greatness in the passing game with innovator Bill Walsh, stalwart coordinators and back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks.


But, still, Morgan shows the early signs of having a chance to measure up. In just his second NFL season – and on a passing attack that ranked 22nd in the league – Morgan caught 52 passes for 527 yards and three touchdowns. Taylor had 50 or more receptions three times in his nine-year career. Morgan is still learning the position, and the club seems encouraged with his progress.


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As I’ve written in the past – and I fully expect many to disagree with me – I think this group of receivers is more than sufficient. There’s enough speed. Crabtree is not a burner, but there were at least two memorable instances late in the season in which he created huge separation on deep routes.


It is rarely good strategy for teams to make big investments in more than one receiver. It only makes sense when teams are built around a passing game. The 49ers are not built around the passing game. That’s why I think the 49ers have a lot of other needs that should be addressed long before they look at spending more money (or high draft picks) on this position.


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Michael Crabtree: He’ll get a full offseason to absorb the offense after learning on the fly last season. Crabtree and his agent, Eugene Parker, ultimately agreed to the language of a “diva clause” in the contract that stipulates that the receiver must have full participation in mandatory offseason activities, along with 90-percent participation of voluntary workouts or he will not collect his salary escalators. Theoretically, with a full offseason of work he should be much better in his second season. He and Alex Smith should be able to build better chemistry as they get to know each other. After watching Crabtree in practice, the one area I do not question is his hands. Signed through 2014.


posMorg.jpgJosh Morgan
: He is still learning the position. Late in the season, he strung together several games in which he played very well as a pass-catcher and down-field blocker. Morgan is also very selfless, as he showed with his willingness to help Crabtree during the bye week and his request to coach Mike Singletary that Isaac Bruce start at Morgan’s position in the final game of the season. Signed through 2011.


Jason Hill: He ran a blazing 4.32 in the 40 at the 2007 combine. He was clocked as the second-fastest receiver in that draft. Hill took over as the third receiver in the second half of ’08 in Mike Martz’s offense and caught 30 passes for 317 yards. But he got off to a lousy start with Jimmy Raye when he missed most of the offseason program last year with a hamstring injury. He struggled to get any reps during training camp and barely made the 53-man roster. He eventually supplanted Bruce as the team’s No. 3 receiver. There has been some talk of trying to work out a contract extension. Signed through 2010.


PosJones.jpgBrandon Jones
: When he broke his shoulder blade while diving for a pass early in training camp, it proved to be an injury from which he could not recover. Much like Hill, the bus kept right on moving. He was the fourth receiver on a team that maxes out with three wideouts on the field. Jones rarely saw action on offense. He caught just one pass – but it was a beautiful, leaping 18-yard grab of a throw behind him against the Seahawks. Jones has deep build-up speed. He’s not exceptionally quick off the line of scrimmage, but he might be able to develop a rapport on the deep ball with Alex Smith. Prior to signing a five-year, $16.5 million contract with the 49ers a year ago, Jones caught 41 passes for 449 yards in 2008 with the Titans. Signed through 2013.


Arnaz Battle: The influx of young wideouts pushed Battle to the back of the pack. He led the 49ers’ wideouts in receptions in 2006 and ’07. He was the No. 3 man in Martz’s offense in 2008 and was on pace for a 50-catch season before a foot injury ended his season. It is highly unlikely he will return to the 49ers in 2010. Scheduled for unrestricted free agency.


Isaac Bruce: He was the team’s leading receiver in 2008 with 61 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. But after a strong season-opening game against the Cardinals in 2009, the 16-year veteran struggled. It got to the point in which he didn’t even practice for the final six weeks of the season. The club listed him with an ankle injury. He played the first snap of the finale in St. Louis, and then changed out of his uniform at halftime. Although he has not officially made any announcement, several of his teammates wished him well on his retirement after the final game.


PosZiggy.jpgDominique Zeigler
: Last season was his third on the 49ers’ practice squad, so this is his final chance. He earned a spot on the practice squad as an undrafted free agent in 2007. In ’08, he played in the final eight regular-season games after being promoted. He caught five passes for 97 yards and was even called upon into emergency punt-return duties. But it was back to the practice squad last season. There’s a lot to like about the 6-foot-3, 185-pounder. He runs good routes and has very good hands. But he is at the mercy of the numbers game. Signed through 2011.


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