3 Burning Questions: Wide receiver
While flying under the radar of low expectations this summer, the Niners seemed to be developing something within their young and unproven unit that has been bolstered by the offseason addition of both fresh and veteran talent. Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle are the starters entering the season, and while that might not scare anybody around the NFL, both third-year players have displayed significant progress since last season and are buying into the tough-love program presented by new receivers coach Jerry Sullivan. Both exhibited considerable promise during the preseason - when they averaged more than 16 yards on their combined 20 receptions. Prolific veteran Johnnie Morton now is on board as the third receiver, and that's an experienced presence to help stabilize the unit. With various new youngsters shining brightly this summer, the Niners are striding forward at the position, regardless of what anybody else has to say. Q: That's nice for the future, but can Lloyd, Battle and Co. get it done in the present? A: They're going to get their shot, and - since they looked quite ready for it this summer - the results could surprise a lot of people. Both made a series of big plays in the preseason that suggest they could be trouble for opposing defenses when left in single coverage. They combined for three touchdown grabs in the preseason, showing the ability to hit deep and also get open to snare intermediate passes. The summer evidence suggests that duo is ready to step up to the challenge. Lloyd, in particular, appears bigger, stronger, meaner and certainly more determined than last year, when his work ethic and commitment were questioned by others. Battle seemed ready to make a significant dent in San Francisco's weak passing game last season, when he averaged 17.9 yards on his eight receptions, but the previous coaching staff was hesitant to use him on offense because of the vital roles he played on special teams. That won't be the case this year. Q: A lot has been said about Sullivan being one of the NFL's top receivers coaches. How much of an impact has he really made? A: Let's let Lloyd answer that one: "One thing coach Sullivan says is shut your mouth, go out there and work and get better," Lloyd said. That about covers the motivational angle, but for a bit more perspective, listen to Morton, who played for Sullivan when both were with the Detroit Lions from 1997-2000 and still is going strong with 603 career receptions. "Coach Sullivan is a teacher who prides himself on teaching," Morton said. "He taught me how to be a receiver and how to see receiving as art form. He is the one that I really owe my career to because he basically taught me everything that I know." But this is one teacher whose authority shouldn't be challenged. Sullivan occasionally has ridden the team's young newcomers hard, but they all seemed to be responding to his methods this summer. It's not exactly his way or the highway to the NFL's waiver wire, but it's pretty close. With two rookies and a second-year player to develop behind the top three, Sullivan is the right kind of guy to have around for this unit. Q: What can really be expected from all the newcomers and the depth they'll provide? A: Morton had a quiet preseason, but he looks like an optimum fit, bringing his veteran presence and knowledge along with a willingness to fit into the team's rebuilding structure at the position. Oh, and the guy still can play a little, running crisp routes to find seams and snag passes once they arrive. Undrafted rookie free agent Fred Amey was one of the team's surprise stars of summer and looks ready to contribute right away as the No. 4 receiver. The Niners also are hoping Rashaun Woods can continue to step up as he did when given extended playing time in the preseason finale against San Diego. The team also has big hopes for fifth-round draft pick Rasheed Marshall, who is making the transition from quarterback but shows huge flashes of athleticism. Ideally, these guys won't have to be used much in the early going, but the Niners would love to see them creeping into Morton's playing time sooner rather than later.
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