49ers preparing for the draft: WR

As the 49ers prepare for the April 26-27 NFL Draft, here's an analysis of the team at the wide receiver position, looking at San Francisco's draft needs and why the Niners may or may not use one of their six selections at this position, what rounds in which the team should think about a wide receiver and some of the prospects available that the team may consider.

Current players: Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Arnaz Battle, Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill

State of the position: The 49ers will have a makeover at wide receiver for the third consecutive year, and once again they'll be hoping for much better results than the year before. The addition of veterans Lelie and Darrell Jackson in March of 2007 looked good on the surface, but Jackson bombed big-time in his expected role as the team's No. 1 receiver, finishing with paltry numbers (46 receptions for 497 yards and three touchdowns), and Lelie was practically a non-factor, finishing with just 10 catches for 115 yards in a reserve role that saw him hardly get on the field during the first third of the season. The lack of impact and production from those two expected playmakers contributed to the overall demise of the offense, not that they were to blame for it. But they shared part of the blame, and that's certainly part of the reason Jackson – who cost the team a fourth-round draft pick last year – was unceremoniously jettisoned in March, a casualty of this unit's poor performance. The way Jackson played in 2007, he's probably addition by subtraction. Arnaz Battle, starting for the third consecutive season in 2007, once again proved to be the team's most reliable and consistent wide receiver, finishing as San Francisco's leader among wideouts for the second consecutive year with 50 receptions for 600 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns. Battle is decent receiver, but the 2007 season showed once and for all that he's a limited player who probably has reached the ceiling of his potential and would be best suited for a complementary role at receiver. He's best suited to be a No. 3 receiver, a role where he could become even more effective than as a starter, and that's what the 49ers seem to have in mind for him in 2008 after bringing in Bruce and Johnson and essentially handing both starting roles to lose. Bruce, one of the most productive receivers in NFL history who has the numbers to prove it, turns 36 during the upcoming season and his wheels carry the wear and tear of 14 NFL season. But his performance of the past two seasons shows no indication that he is noticeably slowing down, and several analysts say he's still got it and can be effective for another year or two, which is all the 49ers are hoping for or expecting. Bruce's exit from the Rams, the only NFL team for which he has played, was more a product of St. Louis not honoring a contractual promise to Bruce rather than the Rams not wanting him anymore. He brings tons of experience in Mike Martz's offense, and the importance of that cannot be minimized as the 49ers once again get accustomed to a new offensive system and new coordinator. Johnson, after playing third fiddle in Arizona to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, did not get the kind of attention on the open market that he and some others thought he would, so this is a big year for him to prove that he's of NFL starting caliber. The Bruce/Johnson/Battle threesome has potential, but the 49ers have been saying that each of the past two seasons about Battle and the veteran free agents that were brought in to play alongside him. The 49ers wouldn't mind finding someone good enough to break into that top three, which obviously would make the team better, and that could come from within or possibly with a draft pick, though the 49ers might be drafting too low in the first round to select a true impact receiver who could make a difference in his rookie season. But there is potential for Lelie, who is talented but needs to find his niche in San Francisco, to make his presence felt in the final year of his contract with the team, and the 49ers also will give another long look to 2007 third-round draft pick Hill, who had a disappointing rookie season in which he finished with one reception for six yards. Hill has a lot to prove this year, but doesn't everyone in this group? And hasn't that been the case with the 49ers at receiver for, oh, about five years running?

Position draft need priority: High

Last wide receiver drafted: Jason Hill, 2007 third round, 76th player selected overall

Why the 49ers will draft a wide receiver: Are you kidding? The answer is obvious, and there is some depth at the position in this year's draft where a potential playmaker could be found in the second or third round after the top prospects are scooped up earlier. Most teams find their top receivers through the draft, then develop them and attempt to keep them around with long-term contracts. The 49ers know this is the best way to do it, but they won't reach in the first round. But they'll be looking – and maybe reaching – at every draft slot after that. And Martz has a history of selecting receivers with mid- and late-round draft picks and then turning them into productive receivers in his system.

Why the 49ers won't draft a wide receiver: The team probably won't find a can't-miss, sure-fire impact receiver with the No. 29 pick in the first round, and besides, San Francisco appears set at the position at least for this season after bringing in Bruce and Johnson to combine with Battle and Lelie. Hill, after a lost rookie season that was hampered by injury, could essentially serve as the team's draft pick at receiver this year.

When to address: First, second, third or fourth round

Who's out there: The draft declaration of several top juniors greatly improved the talent here and could push down a top prospect to the 49ers with their first two picks. There are a lot of good-looking wideouts lumped together in that late first-round/early second round area that the 49ers could have a shot at, including Michigan's Mario Manningham, Florida's Andre Caldwell, Texas' Limas Sweed, LSU's Early Doucet and maybe even hometown favorite DeSean Jackson of Cal if he falls that far. There's no real point in the 49ers taking a flyer on a receiver this year, so they'll focus on getting players who can come in and contribute now and certainly later, which likely means they'll have to find a guy on the draft's opening day unless Martz sees a prospect that he likes for his scheme fall into the fourth round. Speedsters Harry Douglas of Louisville, Donnie Avery of Houston and Eddie Royal of Virginia Tech each are possibilities, and the 49ers also could find prospects such as Indiana's James Hardy, Wake Forest's Kenny Moore, Oklahoma State's Adarius Bowman, Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett and Cal's Lavelle Hawkins at a position of value in the second or third round. There are wildly fluctuating opinions on Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly, of whom some say is one of the very top receivers in the draft and others say is too slow and unpolished to make any kind of immediate impact. Kelly, who did not do a lot to impress NFL personnel types at his recent pro day, is one of the prospects the 49ers have had in for a pre-draft visit, and the team certainly would be interested if he falls to the bottom of the first round. Ditto for Jackson, who also has had a visit with the team.

General manager Scot McCloughan says: "We've added some receivers who are, in my opinion, good football players. I think we were lucky enough to draft Jason Hill last year in the third round. I think he's going to be a damn good player. We're lucky enough to have Arnaz (Battle) on the field when we got here. It's a position that I feel, if a player falls to you, then you take him in the draft. I also think you can build your offense around not just great offensive receivers, but you can get good receivers and still win games. I think our receiver corps is good enough to win a lot of games. Do we have a superstar on the team? No. But I think we have good football players that can make us a better football team. Isaac Bruce is not the answer for the future, but he makes us better this year. Hopefully, we can get a really good player in the draft at the receiver position. If not, I think with the corps we have … They're not difference-makers, but they're dang good football players and I'm excited about that."


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