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