Is Lelie SF's secret weapon?

Ashley Lelie led all 49ers wide receivers with 12 receptions during the preseason, but they didn't come by way of the long-striking plays to which he has become accustomed during his NFL career. But don't be deceived. The Niners showed during August very little of the offense they'll become starting Monday night, and that includes the way they intend to use their tall, fast and talented newcomer.

Lelie is a home run hitter. All anybody has to do is look at the first five seasons of his career, when the rangy and lithe 6-foot-3, 200-pound wideout twice led the NFL in yards per catch while recording 59 receptions of 20 yards or more and 20 catches of 40 yards or more.

With the 49ers? Only one of Lelie's dozen catches in exhibitions went for more than 20 yards, the best non-indication of what the Niners have planned for Lelie this season, not to mention what Lelie has planned himself.

When SFI asked coach Mike Nolan this week if the San Francisco offense will become a bit more vertical with Lelie on the field this season, which is something it wasn't when anybody was on the field this summer, Nolan replied through a sly grin.

"Even if he catches it on a slant," Nolan said, "I'd like for him to take it vertical."

But isn't the deep play one of his biggest assets, coach?

"The deep ball has been there," Nolan said. "Naturally, I don't want to come out and tell you what we're going to do."

Just like the 49ers never showed anybody during the preseason what they are going to do on offense this year under new coordinator Jim Hostler. And Lelie is certainly a part of that now after showing the team some of the things he's capable of after starting slowing upon signing with San Francisco as a free agent in March.

A pulled quad muscle put him on the shelf throughout the 49ers' spring drills and had some wondering about his place on the team when, on draft weekend, San Francisco selected Washington State rookie Jason Hill in the third round and acquired veteran Darrell Jackson from Seattle in a 24-hour span.

"When I got the injury, I didn't know how long I was going to be out," Lelie said this week. "But once that first day of (training) camp came and went and I knew there was no lingering effects with that thigh, I knew I would get my shot."

But it wasn't a shot down the field, something the Denver Broncos were known to do often with Lelie after selecting him in the first round of the 2002 NFL draft. Lelie began his career by averaging 15 yards per reception in his rookie season and 17 yards in his second season.

But he was just getting warmed up. Lelie led the NFL with an average of 20.1 yards on his 54 receptions in his third season of 2004, then led the league again the next year with an 18.3 average. He enters his first season with the 49ers leading the NFL with a 17.5 average per catch since his rookie season.

He didn't get those numbers attached to him by running a bunch of short curls and out patterns.

Nolan said this week that Taylor Jacobs, one of the team's top performers of training camp, will enter the season as San Francisco's No. 3 receiver, though Lelie is listed second on the team's depth chart behind Arnaz Battle.

But Lelie figures to get plenty of work mixing in with Jacobs and starters Jackson and Battle, and he is a player opposing defenses must be wary of because of his quick-striking capability.

So is Lelie a secret weapon that the 49ers will unveil during Monday night's pivotal season opener against the Arizona Cardinals?

"Ashley has played in the league several years, so I think teams and (defensive) coordinators pretty much know his ability and things like that," Jackson said. "He's not a rookie or a guy who's been on the bench for awhile or something like that and just not getting a chance to play. I think everybody knows what he's capable of."

Said Battle, "He's a baller. He's a guy that definitely is a deep threat. He's the biggest wide receiver we have at 6-3, 6-4, and he goes out there and makes plays. That's what he's shown with his consistency in the preseason and on the practice field. He's a guy that if you put the ball out there to him, he can go and get it."

Lelie also proved he can go over the middle and get the ball in traffic, something the 49ers wanted to see during the preseason. Lelie made a convincing statement with his play not only to make the team, but also to gain a significant role in San Francisco's passing game.

"Everybody kind of thinks I can't go across the middle, I can't run short routes," Lelie said. "And I think they just kind of made me do that just to see if I can do it. They didn't let me go deep or anything in the preseason.

"Earlier in my career, I was more of a decoy, trying to scare teams out of certain coverages. The way they used me in the preseason, I barely went deep at all, so I think they're going to use me a lot more in several ways. I think they're going to call on me a little bit more earlier in the season."

You can count on it. The real deal begins on Monday, and the 49ers won't be keeping a burner like Lelie under wraps any longer.

Niners Digest Top Stories