Catching up with the 49ers at wide receiver

Now that the dust has settled, the 49ers' shakeup at wide receiver is just about complete, with perhaps a new twist still to come on draft weekend. The team has made necessary changes to the NFL's least-productive unit of 2007, and here's a look at who's in, who's out and who's in limbo among each WR with connections to the San Francisco roster as the team begins its offseason workout program.

IN: Welcome to San Francisco, BRYANT JOHNSON. It's a surprise landing for the able, big-bodied receiver who will bring his formidable 6-foot-3, 216-pound frame to the 49ers for a one-year trial in which anything can happen. Johnson, a former first-round draft pick getting his first shot at the open market as an unrestricted free agent, went looking for some relatively big contract numbers in a year where his competition at receiver on the market was incredibly weak. Johnson was offered a competitive contract with performance-based escalators and incentives by the Buffalo Bills, but it was the only multi-year deal he was offered and the money wasn't enough to get him to sign. So he ended up with the 49ers, signing a one-year deal that will reportedly pay him $2 million, apparently enamored with the opportunity to work again with 49ers wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan - his first pro coach - and play for a team that is desperately seeking impact help at receiver. Johnson, who was at the team facility Monday working out with his new teammates, figures to get first crack as the starting split end in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's attack, but he'll have to prove he's a fit for that role during the team's spring workouts. Overshadowed by Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, Johnson never had a chance to emerge as a go-to threat, but he had 40 or more receptions in four of his five seasons there as a No. 3 wideout, and his 12.7-yard career average per catch indicates he can get down the field with the ball in his hands and is more than just a possession-type wideout. This is a contract year for Johnson - again - and he'll be looking to make the most of the opportunity. The question is if he can produce as a featured receiver after playing a subordinate role to two very talented - and productive - WRs in Arizona. When Boldin missed three consecutive games with a hip injury early last season, Johnson averaged five receptions for 50 yards per game during that stretch. When Fitzgerald missed three consecutive games in 2006, Johnson averaged just two receptions for 38 yards per game in three consecutive losses. In 2004, when Boldin missed Arizona's first six games with a knee injury, Johnson averaged just four catches for 36 yards in a lead role. In other words, he has to prove he can do it - even to a WR-starved team such as the 49ers. And in San Francisco, he won't have guys such as Boldin and Fitzgerald to attract the primary focus of opposing defenses. 2008 season-opening projection with 49ers: Starter

OUT: See ya somewhere down the road, DARRELL JACKSON. That is, if you find a job with another team that puts you on the field against San Francisco someday. Would the 49ers even bother to cover him? Maybe, for laughs, the 49ers would just let that future opponent throw to Jackson so that he could drop crucial passes in the end zone. In all seriousness, Jackson was a bust in San Francisco, and that had to leave GM Scot McCloughan aghast, since McCloughan - despite some negative reports - heavily endorsed Jackson because of the time they spent together in Seattle and orchestrated the deal that sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Seahawks last year to bring Jackson to San Francisco, where - let's face it - he failed miserably. Jackson didn't work hard, couldn't get open, dropped seven passes (ninth in the NFL), had several possible tough catches elude him and generally displayed a gee-shucks attitude while doing it all. That the 49ers would dump him after one season tells it all. It's a little curious that McCloughan still was referring to Jackson as one of the team's starting wide receivers just 12 days ago, but the move makes all kinds of sense for the 49ers, saving them $4 million on this year's salary cap for a receiver who in no way justifies that kind of money at the stage of his career. The deal to acquire Jackson seemed like a good one at the time, but he scared no one last year while finishing just fourth on the team with 46 receptions and a career-low 10.8 average. Not to rag on Jackson one final time, but this seems like addition by subtraction for a team that has to get better at receiver.

IN: Wow. Are the 49ers really expecting ISAAC BRUCE to be their No. 1 receiver in 2008? That seems to be where he currently fits into the plan as Martz has penciled him in as the starting flanker in an offense that throws a whole lot of passes to the starting flanker. Bruce certainly knows the role, having played it for Martz during the glory days of the "Greatest Show on Turf" in St. Louis. Problem is - and yes, this is a significant issue - he'll turn 36 in November and has 14 seasons of wear on his wheels. When you start slowing down as a receiver in the NFL, you never get it back and you are toast. That said, Bruce still averaged 13.3 yards on 55 receptions last year in a season of disaster for the St. Louis offense, a year removed from a 74-catch, 14.8-yard average season in 2006. Bruce can still get the job done. To what extent will be the issue with the 49ers. In San Francisco, Bruce won't have Torry Holt drawing attention away from him. It could be Martz's biggest challenge yet to devise a plan in which opposing defenses can't gang up on Bruce, which certainly would limit him if not make him the non-force Jackson was last season. 2008 projection: Starter

IN LIMBO: When veterans Jackson and Ashley Lelie were signed during the 2007 offseason, everybody was wondering where that left ARNAZ BATTLE, who was San Francisco's leading receiver among wideouts in 2006. Where it left him was as a regular starter who once again was San Francisco's leader among wideouts with 50 receptions for 600 yards. But if the 49ers' 2007 season of offensive futility proved anything last year, it's that Battle is nothing more than a complementary receiver. A decent complementary receiver, to be sure, who does all the little things right that don't necessarily show up on a statistics sheet. But Battle seemed to reach the ceiling of his potential over the past two seasons, and if the 49ers are serious about getting better at WR, he can't be planned upon as more than a No. 3 wideout. But in Martz's offense, that could be a place where Battle could thrive, and maybe even still approach the numbers he has put up the past two years. Battle is a good, solid player, but he's not a front-liner, and certainly not a difference-maker, and if he's starting again in 2008, it means the 49ers are no better at wide receiver, which is not a pretty thought. 2008 projection: Top reserve

OUT: Yes, veteran BRYAN GILMORE still is out there and available in free agency, just as he was when the 49ers signed him at this time in 2006 and again in October of 2007 after the team released him the previous month. Gilmore's a solid, team player who contributes on special teams and can get open occasionally down the field with his quality deep speed. The operative word here is occasionally, which may even be pushing it. If the 49ers find a need to re-sign Gilmore again at some point this year, that certainly means some of the other options in which the team has invested time, energy and money has failed. This stop-gap veteran can't be on the team again in 2008 if the 49ers are to get better at WR.

IN LIMBO: Will ASHLEY LELIE find a place in Martz's offense that he never could in Jim Hostler's hopelessly doomed attack in 2007? That's as good a question now as it was when the 49ers signed him last March. Lelie has the talent, no doubt about it, but he's a player who has to push himself and focus when he's on the field. Those are things the 49ers can't do for him. As with other wideouts, the possibility of Lelie hitting his stride again in the new offense is exciting. But he's going to have to really want it, and really dedicate himself to being a force again like he once was with the Denver Broncos. Otherwise, he's just another veteran at the tail reaches of the depth chart fighting for a job. 2008 projection: Reserve

OUT: Technically, veteran MICHAEL LEWIS was the sixth receiver on San Francisco's depth chart at the end of last season. But Lewis was strictly a return man for the 49ers and never figured in their offense. And, after the 49ers signed Allen Rossum to be their return specialist in 2008, Lewis won't be coming back.

IN LIMBO: San Francisco native JASON HILL seemed like a good value pick when the 49ers snagged him in the third round of the draft last year, but he had an invisible rookie season that was limited by injuries. Still, even when he was healthy, this kid couldn't get on the field and made no impact even though the 49ers would have been happy to throw him out there for a look after their season slipped away from them, which had already happened by mid-November. Hill had one reception for six yards as a rookie and did little to impress anybody. Maybe he can emerge when healthy in his sophomore season, but at this particular point in time, that seems like a lot to count on. 2008 projection: Low-end reserve

IN LIMBO: A practice-squadder in 2006, C.J. BREWER was showing a lot of nice signs again last summer before he blew out his knee and spent the season on injured reserve. An undrafted free agent out of Wyoming, the odds were stacked against him when he arrived in 2006 and will be again this year in his comeback from surgery. Of course, even if Brewer does show some of the promise he did over the past two years, he doesn't figure to be a factor at the position, unless he does a whole lot of rising and others do a whole lot of sliding. 2008 projection: Possible practice squad/summer release

IN LIMBO: An undrafted free agent out of Baylor in 2007, DOMINIQUE ZEIGLER was in 2007 what Brewer was to the 49ers in 2006. He made an impression during the summer and earned his way onto the practice squad, where he spent the entire season and captured some attention with his fine play on the scout team during practices. That convinced the 49ers to re-sign him for 2008. But it's a big leap from there to making an impact on the 53-man roster. Still, Zeigler will get another look this year, and that's how the anonymous fringe make names for themselves in the NFL. 2008 projection: Practice squad

IN LIMBO: The 49ers signed undrafted free agent JERARD RABB in January to what amounts to a filling-out-the-roster move for training camp. Rabb, who spent some time with the Dallas Cowboys as a rookie last year, is best known for his role in the famous Hook and Lateral play that led Boise State into overtime against heavily-favored Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. He's the long shot of long shots among this group, and - like others above him - could be pushed further down the depth chart or even off the summer roster by what the 49ers do at receiver in the upcoming college draft, and then again after it. 2008 projection: Summer release



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