Where he fits in: Jason Hill
Even with the upgrades the Niners have made at the position in the past three months, Hill will get his opportunity to fit into the receiver rotation if he's good enough. There's not a whole lot of question that Hill thinks he's good enough. "They are getting a big-play receiver," Hill said after the 49ers took him with the No. 76 overall selection in the third round of the NFL draft. "They can definitely count on some big plays from me. I plan on not playing like a third-round pick; I plan on playing like a top-10 pick." So the kid is confident. That's not a bad trait to have entering the NFL. And Hill displayed during the team's three-day minicamp earlier this month that the pro game definitely isn't too big for him, making the early transition well on the field and also showing he can handle himself before a camera and microphone off it. Hill also is motivated. He put up big numbers while playing with average offensive talent at Washington State, then stunned many scouts at the NFL Combine with a scintillating time of 4.32 seconds in the 40-yard dash - the second-fastest time of any receiver at the event - and also producing a better-than-expected 37-inch vertical leap. Despite having quality size (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) to go with those measurable numbers - not to mention school-record numbers of 2,704 yards and 32 touchdowns receiving on his 148 career receptions (second on Washington State's all-time list) - Hill waited while 12 other receivers were selected before him in the draft. "I'll be ready to play; you can definitely count on that," Hill said. "I am a motivated guy. I definitely think my motivation will set me apart from anyone the 49ers have already. I was motivated as it was (before being drafted), but everything I did in college, you can times that by 10 now." Hill is being paired with veteran newcomer Ashley Lelie at split end, the "X" position in the San Francisco offense. The starting position there last season belonged to Antonio Bryant, a true talent who flamed out way before his time with the 49ers. Though Lelie ostensibly is being handed the starting position to lose, it's an open spot in the San Francisco lineup, and there will be some period of open competition once the pads go on in July for Hill to show what he can do. Hill already has the makeup to be a more physical presence at the position than Lelie, a finesse player who relies on his length and quickness. But the 49ers will be looking for stretch-the-field speed from the position, which Lelie has proven he possesses at the NFL level, since he twice led the league in average yards per catch earlier in his career with the Denver Broncos. Can Hill provide the same kind of speed? If he can separate from defenders like the Combine stopwatch would suggest, he could push for a regular role on the edges in three-and four-receiver spreads, and perhaps even push Lelie, who never has quite lived up to his first-round status. Niners coach Mike Nolan said the 49ers never questioned Hill's speed, but doubters remain, even after his eye-popping time at the Combine. There are some who believe that time is a product of intense preparation for the Combine and not a representative indication of Hill's actual playing speed. And, while he certainly was no slowpoke, Hill didn't exactly look like the fastest thing in cleats at the 49ers' minicamp. Mike Mayock, the NFL Network's lead college football and draft analyst, downplayed Hill's accomplishment at the Combine by saying, "People were buzzing that night about Jason Hill at the Combine … But I see a guy that runs in the 4.4, 4.5 range on the football field. He's a heck of a football player and he's fast, but he's not Ted Ginn. When I look at him, I take a step back and say don't get carried away with the Combine. He's fast but he's not a burner." That kind of talk leaves Hill with a burning sensation, not to mention a glowing desire to prove Mayock and others wrong. "He's a hater," Hill said of Mayock's comments. "You can ask any (defensive back) I played against, they'll definitely say I played them fast. You don't score 32 touchdowns in the Pac-10 not playing fast." Niners personnel chief Scot McCloughan - who says the ankle and shoulder injuries that caused Hill to miss the final two games last year, "allowed him to drop to us at a point where we really felt like we got a steal," - says Hill's speed is legitimate. "He's a little upset about people on television saying he doesn't play as fast as his 40-yard time, which shows his competitiveness and pride," McCloughan said. "But to be honest, how many guys actually play at 4.3 in this league? Even if he doesn't, and he plays at a 4.4 or a 4.5, that's still fast enough." The question now is how fast Hill can pick up the detailed intricacies of being a NFL receiver. Rookie receivers don't typically make a big impact on their teams, though there are obvious exceptions every season. And Hill comes to a team that - before acquiring Lelie in free agency and trading a fourth-round pick for Jackson on April 29- was hurting at receiver. It's not out of the question Hill can challenge any of the three receivers currently perceived to be ahead of him in the team's WR mix (Jackson, Lelie and flanker Arnaz Battle). But Hill also will face challenges from behind on the depth chart in the form of 2006 third-round pick Brandon Williams - who was not ready to contribute at WR (no receptions) as a rookie last season - and veteran holdovers Taylor Jacobs and Bryan Gilmore, San Francisco's marginal No. 3 receiver last year. "He's a physical player," Nolan said of Hill. "He's very good with the ball after the catch. He's got a good, strong body and he's a good run-after-the-catch guy. He's a very good football player." So Hill has the pedigree. If he shows he already has some NFL polish this summer, he could make it to Sundays as one of San Francisco's top four WRs on game day, where anything can happen. SFI'S 2007 PROJECTION: Hill displayed some decent route-running and an ability to get open during minicamp, and the feeling here is that coaches will give him a true opportunity to work into the rotation at WR if he shows them from the start of training camp that he is ready to handle the role. In their playoffs-or-bust 2007 season, the Niners aren't looking to break in developing WRs - they want players who can make an immediate impact. Hill has years of proven production at the highest level of college play, which should help his transition once he adjusts to the pro level. He is a bigger, more physical player than several of the WRs he'll be competing against, which could work greatly in his favor. Since he also is a proven special teams player, Hill's berth on the 53-man roster is virtually assured, and he figures to be one player who will see a lot of passes come his way during the preseason to determine whether he can step in and contribute immediately. It seems too early for Hill to get serious consideration as a starter this season, but there's no reason he can't earn one of the top four WR spots on a team that figures to spread the ball around a lot more to its receivers this season than it did in 2006.
Niners Digest Top Stories
Week 2: Fantasy Football Deep SleepersFantasy Football Expert Jack Delaney reveals some under-the-radar players that could help you gain an edge in your Week 2 matchup.
2016 Expert Sleepers, Busts & BreakoutsThe best high-stakes Fantasy Football Experts and world's highest-ranked fantasy players have contributed to what we call Preseason Pro. A collection of hand-picked fantasy…
Top 10 NFL Celebration FailsRevisiting some of the worst celebration fails in NFL history.
Scout NFL Network08/24/2016
10 greatest one-handed catches in NFL historyCheck out the most jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring one-handed catches of all-time in the NFL. Find out who comes in after Odell Beckham's catch against the Dallas Cowboys.