SANTA CLARA — How do little guys survive and flourish in a giants’ league?
Meet Trent Taylor. At 5 feet 7 inches, he’s the 49ers’ shortest player. He’s not a starter on the offense, but he plays a crucial role — slot receiver. On third downs, he’s the little guy who lines up in the middle of the field between the outside receiver and the offensive line, and he’s the guy who often makes the crucial catch. Through four games, he has caught 11 passes — more than every other player on the 49ers except Pierre Garcon.
The Niners drafted Taylor in the fifth round this year. He was the 26th of 32 wide receivers taken. Out of all those rookie receivers in the NFL, he currently ranks second in catches. The only rookie receiver who has caught more passes than Taylor is another slot specialist — Cooper Kupp of the Los Angeles Rams.
Taylor is part of a growing NFL trend — the small slot receiver. Bill Walsh didn’t use one in the ’70s and ’80s, but Bill Belichick has used small slot receivers for more than a decade — from Wes Welker (5 feet 8 inches) to Julian Edelman (5-10) to Danny Amendola (5-10). The Patriots are at the forefront of popularizing this trend.
“I can’t sit here and act like I don’t fall into that category,” Taylor said at 49ers headquarter the other day. “We have the same body types and we’re white. That’s a big way to compare us all. It’s easy to put us in the same category. But we’re all definitely our own person. We all have our own different strengths and skills.”
What are Taylor’s strengths and skills?
“Quickness, route-running, having an understanding of defenses and how to read them,” he said. “That’s what gives me the edge over a lot of other guys.
“For the most part, I’m used as a possession receiver, short-yardage stuff, finding the open holes in the defense. The NFL has become more of a passing game lately. To be able to get short yardage in the passing game, you’ve got to have a guy that’s quick and understands the defense and just has that feel for the game. I think that’s what this game has grown into. On third down, you have a guy that’s reliable over the middle instead of just having the same concepts on the outside.”
Being little is an advantage for Taylor. If he were taller and higher-cut with longer limbs, it’s possible he wouldn’t be quick enough to get open and squeeze through defenders to pick up extra yards after a catch.
“Guys in the slot, you need a certain type of quickness to separate,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “When you get into the red zone, when guys aren’t defending the go-route, they can squat on you. They don’t have to back up. When that’s the case, you’ve got to be able to break people off and double people up and have kind of more like point-guard basketball movements.
“You need your feet under you. Scientifically, it’s easier if you’re a smaller guy. You’re quicker. Same with running backs. Same with point guards. Just that type of movement – quicker, shifty guys tend to be that way.”