49ers offseason roster: WR group deeper than ever
The 49ers are a run-first offense, but they’ve also assembled a wide receiver group that’s quietly one of the NFL’s best. Now they go into training camp looking to establish some additional depth they’ve been lacking over the last few years.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan demands a lot from his receivers, and versatility combined with the ability to run block will get and keep players on the field.
Over the last few years the WR depth chart has been relatively top heavy with mostly special teams contributors filling out the depth chart. That looks on track to change this year though with a slew of players in the mix who could legitimately contribute on offense this season.
As a result of that, we could see some fierce battles play out in camp for roster spots at the back end of the WR depth chart. Let’s look at that group going into training camp:
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Even if Samuel’s “wideback” role gets erased, he’s still emerging as one of the NFL’s elite wide receivers. That could be more evident now with Trey Lance under center where his big arm could help Samuel show off as more of a threat down the field. He’s so good after the catch though that it may not matter where he’s getting the ball – he’s going to create yards and touchdowns.
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A slow start to 2021 held Aiyuk back from having a huge year. Despite earning just 16 targets and catching nine balls for 96 yards through the first six weeks, Aiyuk finished the year with 56 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns. His strong end of the season gives some renewed confidence that he’ll be a real factor in the 49ers’ receiving corps, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he emerged as a favorite target for Lance.
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Jennings is another player who came on strong to finish last year. His big body, physicality and ability to get open make him a perfect third-down and red zone target. The numbers may never be gaudy, but there’s a chance Jennings is one of San Francisco’s most important receivers this year. The WR3 spot will be his to lose going into camp this year.
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There’s a chance McCloud is only a major contributor in the return game. However, he put together a strong offseason program and might carve out a role thanks to his speed and elusiveness in the open field. Playing with pads on will matter a lot for McCloud, but it looks for now like he’ll give Jennings a real run for the WR3 job. At the very least he should work in nicely as a down-field threat while also working as a kick returner.
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The 49ers’ 2022 third-round pick is flat out fast. His tape is littered with plays where small creases in the defenses turn into big gains, and there’s no coach in the NFL better at creating creases in defenses than Kyle Shanahan. It may take a year for Gray to fully develop into the versatile WR Shanahan needs him to be, but his long speed should at least make him a deep threat in Year 1. If his development happens quicker though there’s a chance he’s in the mix along with Jennings and McCloud for snaps.
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Of all the 49ers’ veteran WR additions from the offseason, Turner appears to have the best chance to make his way into the offense. His receiving numbers during his four years with the Cowboys aren’t super impressive. He hauled in 29 catches for 414 yards and 4 touchdowns in 41 games. However, he has good size at 6-2 200 pounds, and he contributed plenty on special teams for Dallas. His path to a roster spot in San Francisco likely involves a heavy special teams workload.
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It might be an uphill climb for Johnson to make the team out of camp, and it may require him to play special teams. He has just 11 special teams snaps under his belt since joining the NFL in 2019 as a sixth-round pick of the Cardinals. In 18 games across two years in Arizona, Johnson caught 36 balls for 360 yards and one touchdown. He’ll either need to make a leap as a receiver or carve out a role with a couple special teams units to have a chance.
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Johnson is right there with Turner as a possible free agent addition who can make the club. He’s been with three teams over the last five years and he’s found special teams work at all three stops. He’s also contributed 51 catches for 839 yards and three touchdowns on offense. Special teams work would likely be his path to the roster though.
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Mack’s lone NFL action came with the Giants in 2020 when he caught seven balls for 91 yards in 11 games. He’ll be a long shot to make the club, but he’s been with San Francisco since late last season so his familiarity with the club could be enough to land him a practice squad spot.
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Mack is an undrafted free agent signing who was consistently productive across four years at the University of Pittsburgh, but he never had a real breakout year. His best season came in 2019 when he hauled in 63 balls for 736 yards and three touchdowns. In four years at Pitt he had 138 catches for 2,059 yards and nine touchdowns. His best chance at sticking around will likely come via the practice squad.
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Martin is another undrafted rookie addition from this year. He played three years at Washington State and another two at Oklahoma State. Last year with the Cowboys was his best college season with 80 receptions for 1,046 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also had a big sophomore year with the Cougars in 2018 when he put up 685 yards and eight touchdowns on 69 catches. He’s another practice squad candidate depending on how he holds up in the preseason.