Season Review: Wide receivers

SFI resumes its breakdown of the 49ers' 2004 season by unit. Today: Wide receivers

Starters in season opener: Cedrick Wilson (flanker), Brandon Lloyd (split end)

Starters in season finale: Cedrick Wilson (flanker), Curtis Conway (flanker)

Unit MVP: Cedrick Wilson

Top newcomer: Curtis Conway

Biggest disappointment: Rashaun Woods

Numbers to note: Wilson's 47 receptions were the fewest by San Francisco's leading wideout since Freddie Solomon led San Francisco wideouts with 31 receptions in 1978. The 49ers got only 143 receptions – total – from the seven receivers on their roster who saw playing time in 2004.

The good: Despite his limited size, Wilson displayed that he could make the tough catch in traffic and take a hit. He also displayed sure hands and an ability to get open underneath coverage. Lloyd continued his development as one of the league's best receivers when in the air. He had several acrobatic, highlight-reel receptions and led the team with six touchdown catches. He was able to take advantage of that ability near the goal line a few times, though the Niners didn't go to him nearly enough in those situations. Conway stepped in and provided a steady veteran presence as the No. 3 receiver, starting five games in place of Lloyd and Wilson. Arnaz Battle, in his second season, exhibited that he might be San Francisco's most explosive receiver, averaging 17.9 yards on his eight receptions, including a 65-yard catch-and-run, the team's longest reception of the season. Rookie Rashaun Woods had a 59-yard catch-and-run in the final seconds of the season finale against New England to boost his season average to 22.9 on his seven receptions.

The bad: This may have been the most underachieving, poorly-coached unit on the entire team. And when you look around at the Niners in some other suspect areas, that's really saying something. Neither Lloyd or Wilson developed into a go-to receiver, which hurt an offense that struggled to identify targets who could keep drives alive. Lloyd, Wilson and Conway – who saw most of the action and accounted for 90 percent of the team's receptions by wideouts – struggled to separate from defenders down the field, allowing opposing defenses to gang up on short and intermediate routes. The 49ers had just two – count 'em – 100-yard receiving games by this unit – one each by Conway and Wilson. Woods, the touted first-round draft pick, developed hamstring problems in training camp that pushed him down the depth chart and didn't allow him to challenge for a more prominent role during the summer. Then, after the season began, he practically fell off the map and didn't even play at all in three games. Woods failed to catch a pass in 12 games. At least that was four games better than third-round pick Derrick Hamilton, who had zero receptions and never even got into a game into the final minutes of the season finale. Hamilton, who had a wasted rookie season, was inactive the first 14 games and didn't play in the 15th. This unit displayed very little development or progress over the course of the season, which is even more disturbing considering it includes four young draft picks from the past two years.

The ugly: Wide receivers accounted for just 44 percent of San Francisco's receptions in 2004, a horrible figure. Concerns about the work ethic and professionalism of some of the receivers came to a head when veteran fullback Fred Beasley called out several unnamed individuals with disparaging remarks a few days after a Halloween night loss in Chicago.

Looking ahead in 2005: Receivers coach Eric Yarber was fired Jan. 21 and replaced two days later by Jerry Sullivan, the receivers coach for the Miami Dolphins in 2004. Sullivan is considered one of the NFL's best receivers coaches, so he will work to get more out of the young players on this unit with his hands-on approach and attention to detail. After both Woods and Hamilton basically failed as rookies, the 49ers must find out what they actually have in both players in the upcoming year. Both may have been held back by poor coaching and dubious decisions to play mediocre veterans ahead of them, but Woods often looked unprepared and lost when he did get an opportunity to play. Sullivan likely will take care of that, and the team – at this point – still is hoping Woods can step in as a productive starter this year, which would drastically upgrade the unit. But if head coach Mike Nolan doesn't see that potential after he evaluates the team's personnel this upcoming month, it's possible the 49ers could use another draft pick to bring in more competition. One thing this unit definitely could use is more speed. Undrafted free-agent P.J. Fleck is a spunky fireplug who also could be in the mix this year, but because of his limited size it's difficult to believe he can be anything more than an occasional complementary receiver. The 49ers may also decide to get Battle more involved as a receiver, which is what they should do, and could challenge for a starting role if the 49ers decide to take him off special teams. Conway won't be back and Wilson – though he does have some value as a No. 3 receiver - probably won't be either. That is, unless the team feels it is too chancy not to retain one of the few receivers that did anything at all to distinguish himself in 2004.


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