49ers 2007 draft/High needs: Wide receiver
Current players: Arnaz Battle, Bryan Gilmore, Taylor Jacobs, Ashley Lelie, Brandon Williams Projected starters: Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie The current situation: The 49ers have been scrambling to field a legitimate set of starting NFL receivers ever since Terrell Owens and Tai Streets bolted from the team via free agency following the 2003 season. The Niners thought they had addressed the issue of bringing on a true potential No. 1 wideout with the acquisition of mercurial Antonio Bryant, who received a four-year, $14 million deal from the team in free agency last year. Bryant immediately showed early signs of being the answer before his brief one-season career with the 49ers disintegrated into a flurry of personal problems, which led to his March release and once again leaves the Niners scrambling at the position entering draft weekend. The 49ers filled the void left by Bryant with Lelie, who signed a two-year, $4.3 million deal with the team as an unrestricted free agent in March. Lelie twice led the NFL in yards per reception during his first five seasons in the league, and he has the long frame and quality speed to give the team the downfield target it needs to run its vertical offense. Despite his size and ability, Lelie has not lived up to his potential as a legitimate No. 1 receiver with either the Denver Broncos or the Atlanta Falcons, and he comes to San Francisco with something of a bad rap, though he says he welcomes his new opportunity and is eager to prove himself with the 49ers. Battle is a solid, reliable starter who continued to develop into a productive wideout last season in his fourth NFL season. Battle can make the tough catch, isn't afraid to go over the middle and does a lot of the little things - like blocking downfield - that often go unnoticed but are important assets at the position. After Bryant flamed out as the 2006 season progressed, Battle stepped up and finished as San Francisco's leading receiver among wideouts with career-high totals of 59 receptions for 686 yards and three touchdowns. But the production of holdover veterans on the roster falls off drastically after that. And, on some NFL teams, Battle and Lelie - the 49ers' projected 2007 starters as of today - each would be no better than a No. 3 receiver. The Niners need to do something about that on draft day if they can find a talent that can challenge to be the team's new No. 1, and that could mean swinging a trade to add another pick to go along with their No. 11 in the first round, which might be a bit too high to use on the receivers that figure to be available at that slot. Now that each has had a season in San Francisco's system, Gilmore, Jacobs and 2006 rookie Williams will get their shot to work up the depth chart and into the team's rotation, where Gilmore was a marginal No. 3 receiver last season. But Gilmore does offer versatility and veteran experience, and some think Jacobs still could be a viable No. 3/No. 4 option in the NFL. Williams must make an impact from the slot this year, because he is simply too small to do it on the edges. The 49ers also will take a look at 2006 practice-squadders C.J. Brewer and Marcus Maxwell, each of whom are big, athletic youngsters. When to address: First round and/or second round, third round and fourth round Who's out there: The 49ers would love to have a shot at Georgia Tech phenom Calvin Johnson, a hotshot prospect who could solve all their problems at wide receiver, but that's not going to happen unless they trade a whole bunch of the picks they've been stockpiling for this draft to move up and get him. But juniors Ted Ginn of Ohio State and Dwayne Jarrett of USC also are legitimate first-round talents who are likely to be available at No. 11, though neither will be as NFL-ready as Johnson and could take some time to make an impact. Though the upside is high on both players, it's debatable whether the 49ers would use such a high pick on either if a more impact-ready defender is staring them in the face, which almost certainly will be the case. More polished products are Dwayne Bowe of LSU and fast-rising Robert Meachem of Tennessee, a lightning-quick junior who is rapidly climbing draft boards and could emerge as a sleeper pick. By draft day, Meachem could get serious consideration at No. 11, though the 49ers obviously would like to find him later. The 49ers have enough high picks in this draft to get better quickly at receiver and upgrade the competition for roster spots, so they should consider taking two prospects here among their eight selections in the first four rounds. Fortunately for the 49ers, it's a deep crop of receivers, and Lane College's Jacoby Jones, Florida State's Chris Davis, UTEP's Johnnie Lee Higgins and Fresno State's Paul Williams are all speedsters who could be found between the third and fourth rounds, a place where more accomplished products such as USC's Steve Smith and Washington State's Jason Hill also could be available. Because of the depth of quality here, even productive college receivers who possibly could challenge for playing time with the 49ers - such as Michigan's Steve Breaston or Central Florida's Mike Walker - could be available near the end of the draft, where they would be well worth a late pick.
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