Barber: 49ers need wide receivers against Rams — and beyond

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What a wonderful time to be a 49er. The pass rush is titanic, the running game unstoppable. The coaching staff could use a cootie catcher to dial up plays, and still come out looking brilliant. Inside the locker room in Santa Clara, the players are carrying themselves with the quiet swagger of a surprise contender.

It’s hard to find a crack in this street paved with gold. But there is at least one. It can be found outside the tackles.

The San Francisco wide receiver corps is a shadow operation. It’s not that all of Kyle Shanahan’s current wideouts are terrible. It’s that none of them are particularly good.

I am of the opinion, opposed by many knowledgeable football people, that an NFL team doesn’t need a true No. 1 receiver, as long as it has a bunch of good ones. Think of some of the offenses the Saints have built around Drew Brees, or even the Rams team that turned secondaries to ash last year. Good catchers of the football; perhaps not a great one in the bunch.

The issues are deeper in Santa Clara, where the wide receivers have a collective lack of firepower.

The strange truth is that the Niners, who boasted the greatest wide receiver in the history of the game and, as of February, a second home-grown Pro Football Hall of Famer, haven’t been strong at the position for years.

Since Terrell Owens left after the 2003 season, the 49ers have boasted a 1,000-yard wide receiver exactly three times — Anquan Boldin twice, Michael Crabtree once. For reference, the division-rival Arizona Cardinals have had 17 in that same period. The Raiders, who have been offensively offensive for most of that time, have had four.

The 49ers’ top wide receivers in the post-TO years have included the likes of Antonio Bryant (2006), Arnaz Battle (2007) and Jeremy Kerley (2016). They got to the Super Bowl in 2012 with a wideout trio of Crabtree, Mario Manningham and an AARP-eligible version of Randy Moss.

Last year’s group seemed to represent a new low, Kendrick Bourne setting a lackluster pace with 487 yards. And this year’s crop is only nominally more productive. Marquise Goodwin currently leads the 49ers with 166 receiving yards. That’s the least of any team-leading wide receiver in the NFL. To be fair, San Francisco has played one fewer game than most teams. If you use per-game averages, the Eagles have a less productive No. 1 in Nelson Agholor. And that’s it.

Goodwin, the former Olympic long jumper, hasn’t materialized as the consistent threat we saw emerging toward the end of the 2017 season. Shanahan doesn’t appear to fully trust Bourne or Richie James with heavy targets. Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd are on injured reserve. Deebo Samuel, the most promising pass catcher of the bunch, has been banged up, too.

Oh, and Dante Pettis? When the 2018 second-round draft pick dropped a pass that Jimmy Garoppolo had laid right in his hands on Monday night, an ESPN camera caught the quarterback mouthing the words, “Every (bleeping) time.” Pettis has 38 receiving yards in four games.

“I think it just shows how versatile our offense is,” Garoppolo said Wednesday when I asked him about wide receiver production. “It’s not going to be one guy making a play, we’re not that type of offense. It’s a guy making a play here, and now we complement with a guy making a play over here and just everyone playing their role. When their number’s called, guys have been answering the bell.”

That’s a particularly rosy take. But it’s true the 49ers are clicking on (almost) all cylinders. Tight end George Kittle is the true No. 1 receiver. And the Niners are so fundamentally sound that they don’t need to throw the ball all over the field.

True, all of it. But things could be about to change. The Rams have better offensive personnel, and better offensive coaching, than any team the 49ers have played thus far. It’s therefore logical to assume Los Angeles will hang more points on the 49ers than the Buccaneers, Bengals, Steelers or Browns. Which means the 49ers will be under more pressure to answer with more scoring of their own.

This mission will not be helped by recent injuries to fullback Kyle Juszczyk and right tackle Mike McGlinchey. They join left tackle Joe Staley on the inactive list. Shanahan has been a play-calling wizard in 2019, but the man can scheme a receiver open only so many times. Juszczyk’s injury, in particular, will force Shanahan to change his offensive approach.

Barring a 300-yard day from Kittle, the 49ers’ wide receivers are going to have to contribute Sunday.

And if not in that game, another one soon. The Niners, as constructed, look good enough to beat most teams on most days. They already have four of the 11-or-so wins they’ll need to make the postseason. But at some point, they will be challenged to score a lot of points in an important game. Can they do it?

I believe Shanahan could do some things to help. Goodwin is still one of the fastest players in the NFL, but he has just one catch of 30-plus yards in his past nine games. Can’t the coaching genius find some ways to get Goodwin open deep? Personally, I think Shanahan could get more out of Bourne, too; he looks capable enough to me. Certainly, it will help if Samuel gets healthy and is allowed to blossom.

But will those things be enough? The height of the bar has changed for the 49ers in the past month. Making the playoffs would be a hoot. A 4-0 start, behind a dominant D-line, should adjust the focus to a deep postseason run.

That’s why there has been so much talk lately about the 49ers acquiring a veteran wide receiver. One headline from Sports Illustrated on Thursday: “Why trading for A.J. Green is a terrible idea for the 49ers.”

Other names I’ve heard bandied about include Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs and Denver’s Emmanuel Sanders, maybe even Atlanta’s Julio Jones. And I don’t think those are terrible ideas at all. I don’t know if they’re realistic, either. It’s easy to jump on Twitter and say, “The Niners should trade a second-round pick and a backup defensive tackle for A.J. Green!” It’s another thing to confirm that the Bengals would be interested in such a deal, or in moving Green at all.

General manager John Lynch should be eating up some phone minutes on this, though. Since he and Shanahan arrived after the 2016 season, their plan has been to build steadily and gradually, and to accept some growing pains along the way. But the 49ers’ recent success has made that plan obsolete.

This team looks capable of great things. Who knows, it could be just one piece away from going to the Super Bowl. If so, we all know what that one piece is.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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