Comparing the NFC West: SF catching up at WR

Continuing our position-by-position comparison breakdown of the NFC West as teams begin to reshape their rosters for 2009, we move on to wide receiver, where the 49ers are finally catching up with the rest of the division after years of languishing at the very bottom.

The Arizona Cardinals completely rule here after their Super Bowl season of 2008 during which starting wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin both starred and No. 3 man Steve Breaston also made a considerable impact.

But whom comes next? You could make an argument for the 49ers after the down seasons experienced by the receiver units of both the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, whose passing games ranked 26th and 29th in the NFL, respectively.

The Rams still have standout Torry Holt, but they lost a lot when they let Isaac Bruce leave to join the 49ers. After an injury-riddled season, Seattle's wideouts are in a state of flux.

Here's a look at the NFC West's wide receivers:

49ers


Starters: Isaac Bruce, Bryant Johnson. Backups: Josh Morgan, Jason Hill, Dominique Zeigler. Injured reserve: Arnaz Battle

Unit analysis: This was the best and most productive group of wideouts the 49ers have had in the past five years, and there was good potential and progress displayed by some of the team's younger receivers. Bruce's production took off in the second half of the season after Shaun Hill was inserted into the lineup at quarterback. Bruce finished the season strong with 61 receptions for 835 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a good influence on the team, but at 36, he clearly does not fit into the team's long-term plans. He does have one year remaining on his contract, though. The 49ers were encouraged with the play from youngsters Morgan and Jason Hill. Morgan is penciled in as a starter for next season. He would've started a lot more games for Johnson, but a torn groin muscle was a major setback. Hill played well after taking over as the No. 3 receiver after Battle's season-ending foot sprain. Hill caught 30 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns in only a half-season of play. Johnson is a scheduled free agent and might not fit into the team's plans with Morgan ready to take over. The team will consider bringing him back at the right price, but is sure to find another wideout to replace Johnson in the summer competition if he doesn't return.

SFI rank in division: 2

Arizona Cardinals


Starters: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin. Backups: Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban, Early Doucet, Sean Morey

Unit analysis: Fitzgerald and Boldin form one of the game's best tandems. Fitzgerald might be the best receiver in the league. No one else has his combination of size, strength and hands. Boldin remains unhappy about his contract status and wants out. The situation might become so poisoned that the team lets him go. Breaston emerged as a solid No. 3 this year, and would move up to starter if Boldin departs. He improved greatly and he has Kurt Warner's trust. Urban is very fast and reliable. Doucet, a rookie, was a disappointment, mostly because of injuries. Fitzgerald and Boldin were a wonderful tandem, finishing 1-2 in the NFC in receptions and combining for 185 catches for 2,469 yards and 23 touchdowns. Breaston was 12th in the NFC with 77 catches for 1,006 yards as Arizona ranked second in the NFL in passing offense.

SFI rank in division: 1

St. Louis Rams


Starters: Torry Holt, Donnie Avery. Backups: Keenan Burton, Dane Looker. Injured reserve: Drew Bennett, Dante Hall, Derek Stanley.

Unit analysis: The big question is whether Holt will be back for the final season of his contract at a cost of about $8 million. He wasn't happy with his role in the offense, but he could become enthused again depending on what happens with the offense. Avery made great strides in his rookie year, although the big plays he made early weren't happening at the end of the season, partly because of a hip injury that bothered him most of the season. Burton learned a lot but also produced little, and needs the offseason to get his knee right. Looker's versatility is always a plus. It's unlikely that Hall will be back, and perhaps Bennett if the Rams want to eat some dead money on the salary cap. He was injured early in the first game of the season and didn't play again. Stanley was showing some development when he tore the ACL in his knee in the 14th game of the season. The question is when his recovery will be complete after surgery.

SFI rank in division: 3

Seattle Seahawks


Starters: Deion Branch, Koren Robinson. Backups: Bobby Engram, Courtney Taylor, Jordan Kent, Michael Bumpus, Mike Hass, Billy McMullen. Injured reserve: Nate Burleson, Logan Payne, Ben Obomanu.

Unit analysis: The Seahawks were decimated by injuries at wide receiver, which led to struggles in the timing of coach Mike Holmgren's West Coast offense. Seattle had nine different starting receivers this season, before settling in on Branch and Robinson the last seven games of the year. Engram is a free agent, and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has lobbied to bring the veteran receiver back next season. Robinson played OK in his return to Seattle, showing some maturity after dealing with substance abuse issues the first time he was with the Seahawks. The team will have to decide if it wants Robinson back. Branch also played well at the end of the season, but will earn $5 million next season. Those players would have to be replaced if they left, of course, especially considering the unproven talent behind them.

SFI rank in division: 4



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