Season preview positional analysis: WRs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to next Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Wide receivers

For the third consecutive year, the 49ers have overhauled their receiver corps in search of a unit that can give the team's passing game a legitimate chance to compete in the NFL airwaves.

This time, they may have finally got it right.

The addition of veterans Darrell Jackson and Ashley Lelie along with third-round draft pick Jason Hill has not only upgraded the talent at the position, but also greatly increased the competition for roster spots on what used to be arguably the team's weakest position.

Now the talent and depth is so much better at receiver that the 49ers released their No. 3 wideout from 2006 – a guy who started three games for them last season – at their final roster cutdown. That's what you call an upgrade.


What can the newcomers bring to the passing game?
Stretch-the-field speed. Proven production. Veteran experience. You name it, and Jackson and Lelie both have it. Jackson, who led the Seattle Seahawks in receptions four of the past six seasons, has settled in as the starting split end opposite holdover starter Arnaz Battle and gives the team its first legitimate No. 1 option at receiver since Terrell Owens left town after the 2003 season. Lelie twice led the NFL in average yards per catch during his first five seasons in the league, and he can be a nice complementary threat on the edges in three-receiver sets with either Jackson or Battle moving into the slot. Jackson and Lelie each have the potential to be the best receiver the 49ers put on the field this season.

Will the 49ers get more from their backup receivers this season?
That seems to be almost a given, particularly when you consider the 49ers only got 12 receptions - total - last season from their reserve receivers behind starters Battle and Antonio Bryant. Bryan Gilmore, the team's marginal No. 3 receiver last year, finished the season with just eight catches, a pitiful total for a team's third wideout. Gilmore couldn't stick on the final roster this year as he was passed on the depth chart by the two newcomer veterans and the emergence of holdover veteran Taylor Jacobs. The team went heavy at the receiver position, also keeping third-round draft pick Jason Hill and 2006 third-rounder Brandon Williams on the final roster. Williams – the team's punt returner - has shown considerable development since his washout rookie season, and Jacobs was one of the team's surprises of training camp with his smooth route-running, great acceleration out of cuts and sticky hands that reeled in almost every pass that came his way.

Who's the key guy here?
Despite the influx of fresh talent, it may just be Battle. The fifth-year veteran is a tough, under-rated performer who led all San Francisco wideouts in receptions last year with a career-high 59, showing both reliability and veteran leadership when he picked up the slack once Bryant began going in the tank after midseason. He also is a standout downfield blocker who contributed greatly to the team's rushing success with that dimension of his game. Through the spring and summer, Battle was the receiver who appeared to have the best rapport with quarterback Alex Smith, and it will be nice for Smith to have that security blanket as he attempts to get in sync with all the new receivers around him.

The bottom line: This clearly is the best group of receivers, as a collective unit, that the 49ers have had in several years. They should have no problem improving on this unit's production from last year, when only 111 of Smith's 257 completions went to wide receivers.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters in season opener: Arnaz Battle, Darrell Jackson
Reserves: Ashley Lelie, Taylor Jacobs, Brandon Williams, Jason Hill
Key new arrivals: Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill
Key departures: Antonio Bryant
Wide receivers coach: Jerry Sullivan, third year with team, 16th year of NFL experience

Strengths: A legitimate No. 1 threat in productive veteran Darrell Jackson and a stretch-the-field deep threat in Ashlie Lelie. A reliable possession receiver who goes over the middle and makes catches in traffic in Arnaz Battle. Good depth at position behind the front-line players.

Weaknesses: Jackson lacks elite size while Lelie lacks consistency and comes to the team with some baggage and questions about his character. Several backups are either short on NFL experience or lack proven production.

Fact check: The 49ers have not had a 1,000-yard receiver since 2003, Terrell Owens final season with the team. Newcomers Jackson and Lelie come to San Francisco with four 1,000-yard receiving seasons between them.

Vital stat I: 111: Total catches by San Francisco wide receivers in 2006, which accounted for only 43 percent of the team's reception total.

Vital stat II: 441: Career receptions by Darrell Jackson, 112 more than the combined total of all the other receivers on San Francisco roster.


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