With 49ers OTAs in full swing, we’re taking a position-by-position look at the team’s roster to figure out the strengths, weaknesses, potential dark horses to make the team and other nuggets about the players who will be competing for jobs on the 53-man roster.
The 49ers are in a good place at wide receiver. That doesn’t preclude them from needing to answer some key short and long-term questions over the next season or two.
We’ll put the long-term questions aside for now since they can’t and won’t be answered anytime in the near future.
Instead we’ll zero in on this year where the top of the team’s WR depth chart is strong. The duo of Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel is formidable. Jauan Jennings has also carved out a really nice role in the offense the last two seasons. Everything beyond that is up in the air.
This offseason the coaching staff will need to determine first how many receivers they’re going to keep. Strong arguments can be made for keeping five or six. Then there’s the matter of which five or six to keep, because after the Aiyuk-Samuel-Jennings trio there aren’t any players whose roster spot is carved into stone.
Let’s run through the receivers on the 90-man roster to get a lay of the land a position that could see significant turnover this year:
Priority No. 1 for the 49ers and Samuel has to be keeping the do-everything receiver healthy. There’s a bit of a Catch 22 with that though since Samuel’s versatile, hard-nosed playing style is what makes him so valuable. It’s also part of the reason he’s missed 14 games the last three years. While he may never repeat his incredible 2021 season where he posted 1,770 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns, Samuel still offers an after-the-catch tenacity that defines the 49ers’ passing game.
There’s a pretty strong case to be made that Aiyuk is the 49ers’ best wide receiver. He’s a route-running highlight reel who gets open a lot. Last year he eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time and posted a career-high eight touchdowns. Aiyuk has improved dramatically as a blocker over the last two seasons, eliminating virtually any weakness to his game. San Francisco picked up his fifth-year option which will keep him under contract through 2024, but there could be a sizable extension on the table this offseason if he builds on his terrific 2022 campaign.
Jennings is perhaps the most underrated player on the 49ers’ roster. He has just 59 catches for 698 yards and six touchdowns in 32 games the last two seasons. However, he’s a menace on third downs with 35 of his receptions coming on third down, and 47 of his receptions going for either a first down or a touchdown. Jennings is a terrific blocker as well, making him a valuable piece of the receiving corps even if he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers.
This is where things get interesting on the 49ers’ roster. McCloud should be on the team. He held down kick return duties last year and averaged 10.8 yards per punt return. On offense he wasn’t much of a factor though, hauling in just 14 balls for 243 yards and one touchdown (one long TD was also stolen by George Kittle). Chances are McCloud is back this year in a similar role to the one he held last season. He won’t be handed the spot though, so a strong training camp will be necessary to fend off some of the other WRs.
This offseason is a huge opportunity for Gray. The 2022 third-round pick was mostly a non-factor last season. He earned just seven targets, catching one of them for 10 yards. He also had one carry for nine yards. Gray was also on the field for just 19 special teams snaps, which is a crucial area for receivers down the roster. There is a place for Gray’s speed in San Francisco’s offense. He moves at a game-changing pace. Running fast can’t be the only tool in his bag though. He’ll either need to show that he can impact the offense at all three levels and in the run game, or he’ll need to play a ton of special teams to be on the roster.
The 49ers have done a nice job finding talented players in the seventh round, which is part of the reason Bell is so intriguing. He plays with a tenacity that jumps off the screen, which should help him make a mark in his first training camp. Bell tore his ACL in 2021, but bounced back to have a career year in 2022 with 62 catches for 889 yards and four touchdowns – all career highs. Special teams will be key for him as well, and it’s easy to see how his play style would translate to being an effective player on coverage units right away.
Conley is one of those intriguing players whose physical tools have never matched his production in the NFL. Through eight seasons the 6-3, 205-pound receiver with 4.35 speed has 217 catches for 2,853 yards and 15 touchdowns. Since 2020 he’s been with three teams and has 66 catches for 840 yards and four touchdowns in 40 games. A veteran with good size and speed could be a factor though if he can be an effective blocker and special teams player. Perhaps joining this iteration of the 49ers offense will unlock something for the 30-year-old.
Willie Snead IV
The 49ers kept Snead around for a couple stints on the practice squad last season. He made his way to the active roster for four games, but played 30 offensive snaps and 38 special teams snaps in those contests. He did not receive a target in the passing game. Snead is a good pro who knows the offense though which could give him a leg up in any battle for a final roster spot. He’s a long shot to make the team, but his veteran presence in camp and potentially on the practice squad has value.
The 49ers signed Martin as an undrafted free agent last year. He spent his rookie campaign on the practice squad and was elevated to the active roster for two games. The fact a UDFA rookie spent the whole year with the team is a good sign for the toolsy Oklahoma State product. He has decent size and had good production across a five-year college career with Washington State and Oklahoma State. An offseason to get stronger and immerse himself in the offense gives Martin a real shot to sneak ahead of the veterans vying for roster spots.
Newsome is a new face to anyone who doesn’t follow the 49ers with the world’s most powerful microscope. He signed to the practice squad in mid-November last year and spent the duration of the season with the team. They re-added him on a futures contract this offseason to give him a chance to compete for a job. Newsome was a sixth-round pick of the Bears in the 2021 draft. He’s been with Chicago’s practice squad and had a cup of coffee on Kansas City’s practice squad before joining the 49ers last year. Newsome posted 2,435 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns in four seasons at North Carolina. He also handled punt return duties, which may be part of his case to make the team this offseason.
Wyatt was the first of two undrafted rookies signed by the 49ers this year. He spent his first two college seasons at Division-II Central Missouri where he had 2,221 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns before transferring to Tulane. In two years with the Green Wave, Wyatt posted 63 receptions for 1,023 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has a steep hill to climb to grab a roster spot, so he may be battling for a practice squad job.
Winstead became internet famous after going undrafted and unsigned following this year’s draft. The 6-4, 218-pound receiver posted a cutup of some workouts and practice highlights that showed a ton of intriguing talent. General manager John Lynch said the 49ers were on Winstead before the video, but he wasn’t signed until after it was posted on Twitter. The physical traits are there for the former East Carolina standout. He’s in the same boat with Wyatt for now though where the practice squad is a realistic goal, but battling for a roster spot isn’t off the table.
State of the Roster
Here are the other positions completed in our State of the Roster series: