Season preview positional analysis: WRs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with keys to the season for each unit, player to watch, 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

It's a new day for the 49ers at wide receiver.

Heard that one before? Well, this year it might actually prove to be true.

The 49ers have revamped their receiver corps on a yearly basis since Mike Nolan and Co. took control of the operation in 2005. And each year, despite their efforts of bringing in newcomer veterans in an attempt to upgrade the position, the 49ers have ended up having one of the least productive units in the NFL.

But with the addition of veterans Bryant Johnson and Isaac Bruce this year, not to mention the quick emergence of rookie Josh Morgan and steady development of Jason Hill, the 49ers promise to have their best set of receivers since Terrell Owens left the franchise after the 2003 season.


KEYS TO THE SEASON

Play within the system:
The pass-happy Mike Martz offense is set up for success. But it relies on receivers running precise patterns and being true to their assignments. San Francisco receivers need to be where they're supposed to be in the design of the offense, and that's something that will require focus and concentration throughout the season.

Get the ball to the wideouts: San Francisco wide receivers accounted for just 117 of the team's 274 receptions in 2007 – a horrible figure. For the second consecutive season and third time in four years, San Francisco's leader in receptions was not a wide receiver. The Niners need to get the ball downfield to their wideouts on a much more regular basis this season, and make those wideouts a predominant part of their passing game.

Develop and utilize depth: The Martz offense makes use of a lot of receivers, and this is an opportunity for the 49ers to develop some of their young receivers and get multiple wideouts involved in their offense behind their starters. With veteran Arnaz Battle and youngsters Jason Hill and Josh Morgan complementing newcomer veteran starters Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson, the 49ers have the potential to hit opponents with multiple receiver weapons on a regular basis.

The bottom line: Even before the 2008 49ers take their first offensive snap, this clearly appears to be the team's best group of wide receivers during the Mike Nolan era, and perhaps its most balanced since the Niners last were a playoff contender. This group still possesses no superstar or true No. 1 threat, but it does have proven, productive front-line performers who will be complemented this year by some exciting young talent that appears on the rise. It could prove to be a fruitful combination - and already is proving to be a considerable improvement on what the team had here last season.


PLAYER TO WATCH /Isaac Bruce

The 49ers took it easy this summer on newcomer Isaac Bruce. They don't want to use him up. They'd rather save the prolific 15th-year veteran and what he has left for the games that count during the 2008 season. And as Bruce has exhibited since he joined the team in March, he still has plenty remaining to contribute to San Francisco's revamped passing game. Bruce, who ranks third in NFL history with 14,109 receiving yards and sixth all-time with 942 receptions, brings his veteran talent and experience and vast knowledge of the Mike Martz offense to a team that is in dire need of both. He promises to give the 49ers a legitimate go-to receiver, provide stability while the team feels its way around in a new system and also serve as a mentor to the team's young wideouts. And he's not shy about shooting for the stars with his new team in 2008. "I'm ready, and I expect great things to happen this year," Bruce said. "I expect it to be 56 points a game. That's what I expect."


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starters for season opener:
Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson
Reserves: Arnaz Battle, Josh Morgan, Jason Hill
Key new arrivals: Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson, Josh Morgan
Key departures: Darrell Jackson, Ashley Lelie, Bryan Gilmore
Wide receivers coach: Jerry Sullivan, fourth year with 49ers, 17th year of NFL experience

Strengths: Two new starters in veterans Bryant Johnson and Isaac Bruce who have had success elsewhere and will fortify the position with their talent, production and experience. A reliable third wideout in veteran Arnaz Battle. Promising fresh talent with youngsters Jason Hill and Josh Morgan.

Weaknesses: Bruce is an all-time NFL great, but at age 35, his best years are behind him. Former first-round draft pick Johnson still must prove he is of starter quality after playing third fiddle behind Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. Quality depth at the position still is unproven. And is there a legitimate deep threat on the roster?

Fact check: Isaac Bruce needs 58 receptions this season to become the fifth player in NFL history to record 1,000 catches. He needs 826 yards receiving to surpass Tim Brown and move into second-place in NFL history in that category behind former 49er Jerry Rice.

Vital Stat I: 50: Receptions by Arnaz Battle in 2007, the second consecutive season he has led San Francisco wideouts in that category.

Vital Stat II: 41: Third-down receptions by Arnaz Battle in 2007, which ranked sixth in the NFC in that category. Battle's six touchdown receptions on third down tied for the NFC lead.



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