SANTA CLARA, Calif. - 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula needed to have an important conversation with Bruce Ellington earlier in the offseason. For the second-year receiver, it might not have been very pleasant.
"I wouldn’t say I was a gentlemen to him, when it comes to that," Tomsula said after Thursday's 14-12 win in the preseason finale. "In talking to him about getting in before practice, taking care of his body before practice, taking care of his body after practice, doing those regeneration things. The massages, taking advantage of those things. I didn’t think he was doing that. We had a man’s conversation."
Ellington spent the offseason dealing with hamstring injuries, to both legs, that bled into training camp. He was unable to make his preseason debut until the third exhibition game in Denver while dealing with a strain in his right leg.
It wasn't an ideal situation, considering the 49ers are banking on Ellington to evolve into a key piece of the offense. He might be the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver, with Jerome Simpson facing a six-game suspension to open the season.
"When he says something, you got to listen," Ellington said, following his 86-yard performance against the Chargers Thursday.
With undrafted rookie quarterback Dylan Thompson making the start, and Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith getting the night off, Ellington saw plenty of playing time in the preseason finale. On the third play of the game, he ran a quick slant from the right slot, beat his man and Thompson hit him in stride.
From there, Ellington scampered 60-plus yards to the end zone, getting there untouched. His night ended with three grabs for a game-high 86 yards receiving. Thompson, Ellington's former college teammate at South Carolina, targeted Ellington seven times on the night, the most on the team.
"You're throwing to a guy that's five yards down the field and he turns it into 70," Thompson said. "We ran that play in college. It's cool to be familiar with it. Before we break the huddle, I said, 'If it's man, be ready.' And it was and he made a great play."
"I think I hit fifth (gear) tonight," said Ellington. "I feel good. I don’t think I’m 100 percent yet, but I’m getting there."
The 49ers took Ellington with a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, marking the second straight year they invested a fourth-round pick in a receiver. In 2013, they took Quinton Patton, who caught the two-point conversion following Ellington's touchdown for his only grab of the night.
Patton had an underwhelming preseason, finishing with 10 yards on four receptions. His most notable play on offense came when he ran backwards 15 yards after a catch against the Cowboys. Patton also blocked a punt and scored a touchdown later that game, before leaping into the stands behind the South end zone, as he did following his two-point conversion Thursday.
San Francisco's offense has lacked a true option in the slot outside of Boldin. And with Boldin, who turns 35 Oct. 5, entering the last year of his contract, Ellington could be a fixture in the slot for years to come. But he's going to have to remain healthy.
Last year, he entered training camp with an ankle injury that kept him out. This year, his hamstrings. But after his conversation with Tomsula, the 49ers hope Ellington's on the right track.
"I would say that since (the conversation) that Bruce Ellington has done everything that I’ve asked him to do in that way," Tomsula said. "His preparation before, he’s doing the things he’s doing with his body, and the effort he’s putting into that, I think is terrific. What the object is obviously to be on the other side of that, moving forward, and being ready to play."
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