Draft outlook: Wide receiver

The 49ers are sure to select a wide receiver in the upcoming NFL draft, and quite possibly will double their pleasure by taking two. The questions aren't how and why but who and when. It's the most obvious position at which the team needs to be replenished, and the Niners - quite understandably - are enamored at the many possibilities for their picks.

This is a great draft for receivers, deep in talent and heavy with blue-chip prospects at the top. That's a good thing for San Francisco, which lost 2003 starters Terrell Owens and Tai Streets during a roster-altering month of March. The team's depth chart today shows Cedrick Wilson and Brandon Lloyd as the starting wideouts, and the Niners certainly would like to have a hotshot rookie replace one of those names before the season begins in September.

San Francisco still is uncertain exactly how it will go about that. The Niners could use their No. 16 overall pick in the first round to nab one of the consensus top six prospects - one or more of which is certain to still be available at that spot - but also would be happy to trade down a few spots to acquire another pick and still get a top receiver early.

"We've studied them hard," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "There's five or six you'd be very comfortable with (picking at No. 16)."

That list includes Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, Texas' Roy Williams and USC's Michael Williams - each of whom likely will be gone at No. 16 - and Washington's Reggie Williams, LSU's Michael Clayton and Wisconsin's Lee Evans, each of whom could still be around at No. 16.

The Niners would pounce on either of the first three. There are reasons they might pass on either of the latter three - Reggie Williams' agents are the difficult-to-work-with Poston brothers, Clayton might not be worthy of that high a pick and Evans doesn't have the kind of size the Niners ostensibly need at the position.

"There obviously won't be five or six (still available) when we're picking," Niners general manager Terry Donahue said. "But there will be a couple there that will be in a clump of players, in a bucket of players, if you will, to use our terminology. We put players in a bucket. There will be five or six guys we'll have in our first bucket, anticipating that certain players have already gone. And then, out of that bucket, a couple of those guys will get picked off, but there will be two or three guys in that bucket that we'll select from."

More than 50 receivers are expected to be taken in the draft's seven rounds, with almost 40 being projected as of high enough quality to go in the first five rounds.

That gives the Niners a lot of options if they are able to maneuver downward with their picks, though taking an elite receiver appears to be of the highest priority - and those guys won't be sticking around draft boards long.

That receiver doesn't necessarily have to be an imposing physical specimen to replace the imposing Owens, a four-time Pro Bowler whose size contributed greatly to his play-making ability and role in the offense.

"We're not trying to replace T.O. with T.O.," Erickson said. "We're just trying to get the best receiver. It's not always height, speed. It's who the best player is. You've just got to decide who's going to fit in with what you need."

Said Donahue of the top prospects, "They all have different qualities. It's like your children, man, you love them all, but they're all different. You have to evaluate them differently and they're all kind of unique in their own special way."

Donahue said, over the course of the draft's two days, the team could end up with two receivers, meaning the Niners could hone in on a second receiving prospect with their fourth-round pick after studying who is left next Sunday after the first three rounds are completed Saturday.

The Niners already have had Clayton, Fresno State's Bernard Berrian and Florida State's P.K. Sam in for visits in recent weeks. Berrian is projected to go in the second or third round while Sam is projected as a fourth- or fifth-round prospect.

Of course, it all depends on who is available. And if the Niners can trade down and get another early pick, the team could look for two second-tier talents on the opening day of the draft. They got a gem in the fourth round with Lloyd last year, so they enter the draft confident they'll come away with quality receivers whatever the method.

"There are a lot of good ones that you could get in the draft late," Erickson said. "In my six years that I've been in the draft, this might be the best receivers corps that I've seen."

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