Season in review: Wide receivers

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Wide receivers

Wide receivers on final 53-man roster: FL Arnaz Battle, SE Bryan Gilmore, SE Taylor Jacobs, FL Brandon Williams

Starters in season opener: SE Antonio Bryant, FL Arnaz Battle

Starters in season finale: SE Bryan Gilmore (49ers began season finale in two- tight end set; Battle started other 15 games at flanker)

Unit MVP: Arnaz Battle

Top newcomer: Antonio Bryant

Most improved: Arnaz Battle

Biggest disappointment: Antonio Bryant

Biggest surprise: Battle's emergence into a solid starting receiver and team leader in receptions among wideouts.

On the rise: Arnaz Battle

On the slide: Antonio Bryant

Overachiever: Arnaz Battle

Underachiever: Antonio Bryant

What went right: Newcomer Antonio Bryant, signed to a four-year deal in free agency last March, immediately established himself as one of the 49ers' top talents at the skill positions and developed a strong rapport with quarterback Alex Smith early in training camp. That carried over to the regular season, when Bryant started his first year in San Francisco with back-to-back games of 114 and 131 yards receiving, including a 72-yard scoring bomb from Smith in Week 2 that exhibited his big-play potential. Bryant had a NFL-best 30.6 average per catch after those two games, and he had five other games during the season in which he averaged 19.5 yards or better per catch. Before missing the final two games due to NFL suspension, Bryant recorded 40 catches for a team-leading 733 yards receiving, and his 18.3 average per catch was the second best in the NFL for any receiver with more than 38 catches. Battle became a steady force as a sure-handed possession receiver on the side opposite Bryant and recorded three or more receptions in 13 of the team's 16 games. Battle matched his career high with seven receptions in Week 16 and had two touchdown receptions in a Week 5 victory over Oakland on his way to leading all San Francisco wideouts with a career-high 59 receptions, finishing two catches behind team leader Frank Gore. Battle recorded 686 yards receiving and tied Bryant and tight end Vernon Davis for the team lead with three touchdown receptions. Gilmore averaged 18.8 yards on his eight receptions and had a 75-yard catch that set up a touchdown in Week 3. Gilmore also was a factor on reverses throughout the season, gaining 94 yards on seven attempts, several of which came in key situations.

What went wrong: Bryant caused some early-season disruption when he showed up quarterback Smith with a demonstrative on-field display of frustration in Week 2. Then - after doing a good job keeping his public emotions in check over the next two months - Bryant went off the deep end after San Francisco's Nov. 19 upset of Seattle. In the late evening hours following that game, Bryant was arrested for suspicion of drunken driving, reckless driving and resisting arrest when he allegedly was seen speeding more than 100 mph in his Lamborghini. Bryant subsequently was suspended four games by the NFL for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, which forced him to miss the team's final two games in December and will carry over to the first two games of 2007. The entire situation involving Bryant was a huge letdown to the team, which needed his big-play presence in the lineup during a Week 16 loss to Arizona that eliminated San Francisco from playoff contention. After his two big games to start the season, Bryant was limited to 44 yards receiving or fewer in a game nine times as opponents began rolling safeties to his side, and Smith also had trouble hitting Bryant after he had beaten single coverage. Bryant also had several big plays erased by penalties during the season. Gilmore, despite his big-play speed, was a virtual nonfactor as the third receiver, finishing the season with just eight receptions. Brandon Williams, on whom the team spent a third-round draft pick in 2006, finished his rookie season with zero receptions and was seldom used in passing situations. Taylor Jacobs, who was acquired in an August trade that sent cornerback Mike Rumph to the Washington Redskins, also had virtually no impact as a receiver with four receptions for 29 yards.

Looking forward in 2007: The 49ers are sure to upgrade their receiver corps during this offseason, perhaps spending some big money in free agency to bring in an established veteran who can contend to be the team's No. 1 receiver. The 49ers thought they were doing that - and getting that - when they spent $14 million on Bryant last year, but despite his undeniable talent, Bryant displayed in 2006 that he is not an individual that can be counted on. Coach Mike Nolan says Bryant still is in the team's future plans if he can get - and keep - his act together, but there is just as good a chance that Bryant will never play another snap for the team, which could release him after his suspension ends two games into next season. That possibility will depend on several factors - among them Bryant getting his problems in order and the other receiving talent the 49ers bring to the team. But at this point, the 49ers would much rather have Bryant on the field for the start of Week 3, though his role is likely to change if he remains with the team. The 49ers also may use one of their top draft picks on a receiver, and certainly will bring in at least one prospect via the draft, when San Francisco is expected to have eight selections in the first four rounds. Battle solidified his standing on the team as a tough, complementary receiver who can be counted upon, and he'll remain one of the team's top three receivers this year. Nondescript veterans Gilmore and Jacobs will have to fight to keep their roster spots this year, and the team will be looking for much more from Williams, the leading receiver in University of Wisconsin history who could be facing a make-or-break season with the 49ers in 2007.

Final 2006 unit grade: C


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