Which 49ers receiver will make the big leap?
SANTA CLARA - George Kittle isn’t enough.
To finish next season with a winning record, the 49ers will need a consistent receiving threat other than Kittle, their Pro Bowl tight end.
Kittle is an elite pass-catcher, but opposing defenses will double- and triple-cover him constantly next season. One of the 49ers’ wide receivers must draw attention away from Kittle.
Unfortunately for the 49ers, Kittle is their only consistent pass-catcher. None of the other receivers have proven themselves. None ever have gained more than 1,000 yards in a season.
One of the 49ers’ wide receivers must make a giant leap forward next season. Here are the most likely candidates to make the leap:
1. Kendrick Bourne
Bourne was the 49ers’ most reliable wide receiver last season. He played all 16 games and gained 487 receiving yards - second most on the 49ers after Kittle, who gained a whopping 1,377 receiving yards.
The 49ers can count on Bourne to stay healthy, know Kyle Shanahan’s complicated playbook and make the difficult catches in traffic. They’ve seen him make those catches the past two seasons since they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
The 49ers know exactly what to expect from Bourne - both the good and the bad. So, they probably won’t expect him to transform himself into a go-to receiver defenses have to worry about. Bourne is a solid No. 4 or 5 receiver on a depth chart, but he probably isn’t dangerous enough to start for a good offense. The 49ers may need someone else to step up.
2. Deebo Samuel
The 49ers absolutely expect Samuel to become a go-to receiver at some point.
Shanahan coached Samuel at the Senior Bowl in January, and the 49ers took him in the second round of April’s draft. They know him well and value his potential.
Shanahan called seven passes for Samuel during the first two OTAs in front of the media this offseason. Clearly, Shanahan was preparing Samuel for a significant role in the offense. But, Samuel tweaked his hip during the second practice and missed the rest of OTAs and minicamp. He fell behind.
Samuel has a history of missing time. In college, he missed 21 of 52 games to various injuries. If he stays healthy the rest of the year, he may become the threat the 49ers need opposite Kittle. But, if he continues to suffer minor injuries, the 49ers may choose to break in Samuel slowly his rookie season, then feature him on offense in 2020.
3. Marquise Goodwin
Goodwin played like a No. 1 receiver for about a month two seasons ago.
From Nov. 12, 2017 to Dec. 17, 2017 - a span of five games - Goodwin caught 29 passes for 480 yards. Fantastic numbers. But, since then, Goodwin has played 13 games and caught just 28 passes for 460 receiving yards.
He has stopped producing.
Since his brilliant five-game stretch of 2017, Goodwin has suffered a concussion, a quadriceps contusion, a hamstring pull and a calf injury. He can’t stay healthy. He’s not reliable.
The 49ers had to rely on Goodwin big time the past two seasons - he started 24 of 32 games. Now, Shanahan believes Goodwin will benefit from a reduced workload.
“There are other people to take some pressure off,” Shanahan said during minicamp. “Since we’ve gotten Marquise, he’s had to play a lot more than you would like. We haven’t had the necessary depth.”
Goodwin may thrive as a part-time player next season, but almost certainly won’t become the consistent threat the 49ers need to complement Kittle. Those five games from 2017 probably were Goodwin’s outliers.
4. Trent Taylor
Taylor might be Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite receiver.
Those two had instant chemistry when Garoppolo became the starting quarterback in 2017. Garoppolo came from the New England Patriots, where they feature slot receivers in their passing game. Taylor is similar to the slot receivers Garoppolo played with in New England.
As a rookie, Taylor caught 43 passes - the same amount Kittle caught in 2017. But, in 2018, Taylor finished the season with just 26 catches, because he never fully recovered from back surgery.
“It was a bunch of built-up scar tissue in my back,” Taylor said during minicamp. “They had to go in and shave it down to get it off the nerve. I’m feeling healthier right now. That’s what I’ve been focusing on all offseason - getting back to my old, normal self. It’s a really good feeling to go out there and be explosive the way I know I can and get separation the way I know I can.”
During the five offseason practices in front of the media, Taylor caught 23 passes - more than any other 49er. He and Garoppolo still have chemistry.
But, like Goodwin, Taylor is a part-time player. He’s a slot receiver who plays on third downs and during two-minute drills. He’s not a starter. When he’s on the field for third-and-five, opposing defenses already know to double-cover him and Kittle. Someone else will need to step up for the 49ers.
5. Dante Pettis
It has to be Pettis.
He is by far the top candidate in the wide-receiver room to make the big leap forward. He’s entering his second season, he has experience and the 49ers traded up to draft him in the second round. Meaning Shanahan expects Pettis to produce.
Last season, Pettis produced in flashes. He appeared in 12 games and caught 27 passes for 467 yards and five touchdowns. But, he was inconsistent and injury prone. He hurt his knee twice.
This offseason, Pettis hasn’t hurt himself or missed any time. But, he still has been inconsistent. In five practices, Shanahan called 27 passes for Pettis and he made just 14 catches.
“I want to see him make back-to-back plays,” wide receivers coach Wes Welker said during OTAs. “I want him to have the mentality that he’s going to make every damn play. You have to have the mindset that you’re indestructible, even though you’re not.”
Pettis doesn’t have that mindset yet. Last season, he seemed to avoid contact at times, especially when he ran routes over the middle. “That’s something I didn’t do that good of a job last year, making those tough catches,” Pettis said.
If Pettis learns to make the tough catches, he may become the consistent No. 1 wide receiver the 49ers need.
“Someone is going to step up,” Pettis said. “I’m going to play the best football I can play. If that puts me at the top, great. If it doesn’t, I know we’re still going to be able to move the ball, score touchdowns and win games. I don’t think any of us are worried about who the top guy is. People don’t even think we have a top guy, so there really are no expectations.”