New set of WRs must step up for 49ers success

The release of veteran Bryan Gilmore among the 49ers' final cuts Saturday underscores the obvious of how committed the team is to upgrading its targets at wide receiver this year. San Francisco's No. 3 WR of 2006 wasn't good enough to be one of the top six WRs this year on a unit that must perform this season if the Niners are to take the next step as both an offense and team.

Gilmore is a veteran the team had difficulty parting with during Sunday's final roster cutdown because of his versatility and professionalism. Besides starting three games and playing almost half of San Francisco's offensive snaps last season at receiver, Gilmore also rushed for 94 yards on seven reverses and contributed five tackles on special teams.

The problem was, despite playing all those snaps, Gilmore finished with only eight receptions. Yes, eight receptions. That's not a typographical error. But it is a reflection on how much the 49ers were lacking at the receiver position in 2006.

On most NFL teams, the No. 3 receiver usually winds up a season third, fourth or fifth on that team's list of reception leaders. But Gilmore finished eighth last season. In addition to starting wideouts Arnaz Battle and Antonio Bryant, the 49ers had three running backs and two tight ends finish the season with more receptions than Gilmore.

That's how bad it was. And so is this: In 30 combined games including 28 starts last year, Battle and Bryant combined for just 99 receptions for 1,419 yards and six touchdowns.

That's not exactly what you'd call AB positive. Jerry Rice, for example, four times in his career had more receptions in a season than that all by himself. He had more receiving yardage six times. He had more touchdowns in a season 15 times.

The 49ers have nothing close to a Jerry Rice on their roster this year, but they are much better at the position than the dark days of the past three seasons, when only once did a wide receiver actually lead the team in receptions.

While Gilmore got pushed off the team due to roster dynamics – the 49ers had to keep rookie third-rounder Jason Hill on the 53-man squad, and the team's designated kick returner, Brandon Williams, also is a receiver – he lost his spot because he was beaten out by better receivers.

Taylor Jacobs and Ashley Lelie are now the leading candidates to be San Francisco's No. 3 entering the season, and with all due respect to the classy Gilmore, they are much better threats, particularly if Jacobs can live up in games to the fine play he exhibited throughout this summer in training camp.

With those two complementing starters Darrell Jackson and Battle, nobody can complain anymore that the 49ers don't have some legitimate targets at receiver for quarterback Alex Smith.

"He has better weapons around him than he has had the last two years," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Certainly, some teams would claim to have better ones and I would agree, but our guys are going to be pretty good."

Jackson is the key, because the 49ers need a go-to guy who can get open in the clutch, something they haven't had since Terrell Owens took his ego and attitude - and the superior talent that went along with it - elsewhere after the 2003 season.

Jackson isn't big, but he clearly has that little something extra that separates him from the average receiver – not to mention separating him from opposing defensive backs. The guy knows how to get open, and he knows how to perform in the clutch. He'll get every kind of opportunity to do that for the 49ers this year as their No. 1 receiver.

And Battle, at the very least, is an underrated player who gets the job done. He runs crisp routes, makes the tough catch over the middle, plays the game like it should be played and enters his fifth NFL season with confidence to improve on his 2006 numbers after leading all San Francisco wideouts last year with 59 receptions.

"I'm excited about what Darrell Jackson is going to bring," Nolan said. "Arnaz Battle is very good with Alex. By the end of (last season) really, Arnaz had kind of taken over as far as the ball catching goes. I know Alex trusts Arnaz. He's getting in that mode with Darrell. I'm hopeful that he has three guys this year, rather than just one, like he had early in the season (last year)."

That one last year was Bryant, a legitimate No. 1 threat who blazed onto the scene in San Francisco last season with back-to-back 100-yard receiving efforts in his first two games as a 49er. But Bryant then began a gradual decline in performance that eventually ended with him being suspended the final two games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, one of several things that convinced the 49ers to part ways with his volatile character during the offseason.

But Bryant's problems allowed Battle to emerge, and now he won't have to carry the weight at wideout like he did much of the second half of the season last year, which began with tight end Vernon Davis also on the shelf with a broken leg.

Lelie is a proven commodity who twice led the NFL in yards per reception, and after a lukewarm start in San Francisco this spring – when some were questioning both his commitment and character, which was an issue at his two other NFL stops – he made it clear during the preseason that he's ready and able to both compete and contribute, and that it doesn't seem to bother him that he'll be doing it with his new team as a complementary threat.

Throw in Jacobs, who looked every bit this summer like the second-round talent he was when he came into the league in 2003, and the 49ers won't worry that they have guys who can produce when they go to three- and four-receiver sets this year, or need to give one of their starting wideouts a blow.

Lelie is a long-strider and tall target who can stretch the field and is at his best running vertical routes. Jacobs simply needs to show that he can do in games what he has done in practice all summer. If the 49ers have to resort to putting either Williams or Hill on the field at receiver this year, well, that means Lelie and Jacobs are disappointments in their jobs.

"It's nice to have so much more depth, to have so many different guys out there that can make plays with the ball in their hands," Smith said. "So I'm excited about that, because everyone out there can make plays and I can just stay within myself and go where I need to go with the ball and whatever the defense is telling me to. It's nice to have that."

That was something neither Smith nor the San Francisco offense had last season. This year promises something much different and better.

And it will have to be that way, because opposing defenses will be designed to stop San Francisco's running game first, then worry about what the 49ers can do through the air.

So it's step up and put out time for San Francisco's corps of receivers, who may prove to be one of San Francisco's most important units this season as far as the team's success is concerned.

"We're expecting big things from our receiving corps," Jackson said. "Last year, I guess they say there was a void, so we have to get ready for eight (defenders) in the box for the run and stuff like that. But that gives us a lot more opportunities to get one-on-one matchups and make big plays for us. So we want to turn it up and get on the map."

That's what it may take for the 49ers to get there as a team.

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