WRs changing perceptions with first impressions

Everybody knows the 49ers need help at wide receiver, with Mike Nolan presumably at the top of that list. But not so fast. The five veteran WRs currently on the roster kind of grew on Nolan with their performance over the weekend at the team's first spring minicamp. "They impressed me more than I had anticipated," Nolan said. Changes at the position still are sure to come before training camp, but early indications suggest those changes might not need to be as drastic as originally anticipated.

"Every receiving corps needs to improve," Brandon Lloyd was saying early Sunday afternoon after his first opportunity to display his stuff before Nolan and the team's new coaching regime. "I'm sure they'll bring somebody else in. But it doesn't matter who they bring in. It's not added pressure. It just means we have to go out and keep taking care of business."

While Lloyd had some flashes last year in his first season as a regular starter, it definitely can't be said that San Francisco's receivers took care of business in 2004.

Quite to the contrary, in fact.

A lack of big-play talent at receiver was one of the primary reasons San Francisco's offense failed in 2004. It was no secret that played a major factor in the Niners struggling to move the football and score points during last year's dismal 2-14 season.

That unit entered this early spring minicamp – a get-to-know-you session for the new coaches and veteran players – without Cedrick Wilson and Curtis Conway, the team's top two veteran receivers from last season.

Some might consider that addition by subtraction. There were many who felt former coach Dennis Erickson's befuddled use of Wilson as the starting flanker and Conway as the team's third receiver was holding back the development of the younger receivers.

But still, Wilson led San Francisco wideouts with 47 receptions last year, and apparently was enough of a commodity to convince the Pittsburgh Steelers to throw a four-year, $8 million offer his way in free agency. Wilson didn't think twice about taking that sweet deal. Good-bye, Ced.

And Conway, though he turned 34 in January and obviously no longer fits into the team's rebuilding plans, still contributed 38 receptions as a solid veteran option last year.

What was left of the team's holdover receiving corps for this week's minicamp? The 49ers only had five receivers – total – on hand for the three practice sessions over two days. And three of them played sparingly or not at all as rookies last season.

But the early results were encouraging.

While they didn't exactly knock anybody's socks off, Lloyd and fellow third-year receiver Arnaz Battle showed the skills of seasoned veterans. Battle, in particular, made a few eye-popping catches that suggest he was misused last year as the team's No. 4 receiver.

And second-year players Rashaun Woods, Derrick Hamilton and P.J. Fleck displayed development and comfort in San Francisco's offensive system along with athleticism and some particularly sticky hands of Fleck.

"I don't know what (coaches are) thinking," Lloyd said. "But I know there was a lot of improvement in Rashaun, a lot of improvement in Derrick. Arnaz was consistent as usual. P.J. was consistent as usual. I mean, from what I saw was solid. Especially from the load that was put on us and that was expected of us to go out and perform, I think the receivers did a great job."

While the weekend performance was promising, the suspect numbers from last year remain.

Lloyd had 43 receptions for 565 yards and led the 49ers with six touchdown receptions last year, but he still took heat that he could not get open or separate from defenders.

But that's a lot better than the three rookies fared. Woods and Hamilton – the team's first- and third-round draft picks last year – were huge disappointments. Woods had just seven receptions. Hamilton didn't catch a pass and was inactive 14 games. Fleck, an undrafted free agent, spent the entire season on the practice squad before being elevated to the big roster for the season finale at New England.

The dubious 2004 development of the young receivers has led to rather obvious speculation that the team will attempt to upgrade at the position during the offseason.

The 49ers have openly discussed the possibility of bringing in veteran free agent David Boston, among others. There also is talk San Francisco is considering using the No. 1 overall selection in the upcoming draft on University of Michigan star Braylon Edwards. If that bold move doesn't transpire, Nolan isn't denying that he plans to take another receiver at some point in the draft.

"You can't worry about who they're going to draft," Battle said. "That's just out of your hands. I look at making myself better, going out every day to improve myself to help make this team better."

Said Woods: "All I can do is go out and try to show them that maybe they don't need to do that, or maybe they can feel they can hang their hat on some of the guys that we've already got here. It's a tough business. But I came out and gave 100 percent, gave it everything I had and did the best I could. Obviously, we have to develop some more depth at the position. But every guy that's here has the ability to play."

If nothing else, Nolan at least got a few early glimpses this weekend that might actually be true.

Nolan's expectations for his holdover receivers may already have changed, but don't expect that to change the 49ers' plans of bringing in at least one veteran or rookie who can legitimately challenge for a starting berth, or even to be the team's No. 1 receiver.

Still, Nolan appeared genuinely pleased by what he saw from the youngsters already on board.

"I think we'll come out good in that group," he said. "We'll certainly try to add to it as the draft goes forward and see what we can get out of this. I won't go as far as to say (the team already has a No. 1 receiver), but as you well know, there's got to be some 1s come out of it because that group, people are going to start in it. But I was not disappointed in that group at all, I really wasn't. I was impressed. They're a very hard-working group. I could see that excitement in their eye. And you could see the way they work and the way they go after the ball. They've got good hands."

"And," Nolan made sure to add, "they can get a lot better than they've already been because it's not all about being the biggest, strongest, fastest wide receiver. There's a lot of technique involved."

But technique can't make up for talent. The 49ers will continue to keep an eye out for more of the latter while their current receivers work on the former.


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