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On Thursday, the 49ers added another two wide receivers to their already packed receiving room, signing Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. That’s not a cause for optimism.
The position group is unquestionably the least experienced and weakest on the roster. Before the signing of Austin, a seven-year NFL veteran, and Nelson, a five-year NFL veteran, Trent Taylor, at age 26 and with three years of league experience, was the oldest player in the group. Kendrick Bourne, age 25, also has three years of experience.
The moves were made in the wake of three occurrences:
- Deebo Samuel’s Jones fracture, which is expected to cause him to miss the entirety of training camp and potentially the start of the season, with a return some time in the first four weeks of the year.
- Richie James Jr.’s wrist fracture, which will also keep him out of training camp, and in all likelihood, will see him waived with a non-football injury or cut, or making the final cut to be placed on injured reserve.
- Travis Benjamin’s voluntary opt-out.
This all leaves the 49ers without a reliable backup outside receiver to Brandon Aiyuk, and leaves them with two fewer return men. They already lost D.J. Reed Jr. to injury and then the Seahawks this offseason, who was another return option. Aiyuk may be allowed to return punts, but could be protected from kickoff returns, which are a higher-risk, lower-reward proposition. In bringing in Austin, they get another speedy returner, despite his myriad deficiencies.
Chief among Austin’s major shortcomings are his 22 career fumbles, seven more than the 15 combined fumbles from the seven other wide receivers on the roster with NFL experience. He has three five-fumble seasons and his 22 fumbles since entering the league are tied for the most for any non-quarterback and 34th overall in that time period.
But he’s fast, returns kicks, has only fumbled once over his last 21 games, and plays a position of which the 49ers are in dire need of depth, especially and preferably from a veteran who can be a reliable rotational player from the first game of the season.
Here’s how I see the current crop. Green means a roster lock, blue means exceedingly likely (injuries being the main concern) to make the roster, yellow being a bubble player and orange being unlikely to make the roster.
The 49ers will likely take seven wide receivers due to Deebo Samuel’s injury, and may have done so anyway, with Jalen Hurd being a quasi-tight end/fullback/running back.
Bourne, Samuel and Aiyuk will all obviously make the roster. Bourne is the most reliable option on the team right now, and if Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd are both healthy, they’ll also make the roster. That leaves two spots.
Dante Pettis is the next player in. As poor as he was last year, he’s still a second-round pick from a couple seasons ago and it will cost more to cut him than retain him. He also had a few lower body injuries last year, and if the 49ers ever want to try and trade him, they’ll have to show he still has value. It’s hard to imagine Kyle Shanahan giving up on him considering how weak the competition he’s facing is.
While his tape indicates that he’s at his worst on the outside, and not reliable from the slot, Shanahan seems to think he can play on the outside. That makes him at least theoretically versatile.
If you play a guy at multiple positions, sure, you can call him versatile, but in reality, he’s not excelling in all those roles.
Some players, like Emmanuel Sanders, are capable of lining up anywhere. Pettis has had the majority of his success as a flanker, but the 49ers also haven’t given up on him, yet, both in general and as a supposedly versatile receiver. When he plays, which wasn’t often down the stretch last season, it was in a variety of alignments.
That leaves one more spot open. Due to James Jr.’s injury, it seems likely he’s cut, and Chris Thompson probably has the weakest case to make the roster.
The remaining four players are intriguing.
Jauan Jennings is a tall, dynamic slot option who isn’t naturally quick, but is physical and shifty with an enticing presence in the red zone. The 49ers are, however, stacked at the slot. Maybe he can prove, like Hurd, that he’s a quasi tight end with special teams upside and make the roster through that versatility.
Austin, as mentioned, is a fast, outside presence whose questionable route-running, attention to detail and fumbling struggles, paired with his selection as the eighth overall pick in 2013, give him a reputation as a bust. But he’s got his fumble issues under control over the last two seasons and returns kicks and punts, which is a massive selling point.
J.J. Nelson seems to be the least enticing option, with 11 receptions, 1 TD and 100 yards over the last two seasons. But, like Austin, he’s a veteran outside presence, and that counts for something.
Shawn Poindexter is the enigma here. He flashed a crazy catch radius in training camp last season before tearing his ACL in the opening preseason game. It’s not clear if he has the preferred speed or polish needed to make the roster, but at 6’5″ with long arms and a year under Shanahan tucked in his back pocket, he could be a sleeper to make the roster.
Jennings is a popular pick, and rightly so. It wouldn’t be remotely surprising if he made the roster. It could also be Poindexter, but the team bringing in another two wide receivers at his spot doesn’t bode all that well, and they will likely try and get him on the practice squad, where rules now allow for promotions to the active roster on game days.
My guess is Austin makes the roster, in large part due to his ability to play as a split end, move around the formation, and most importantly, return kicks and punts. If Shanahan can protect Aiyuk from returning kicks and potentially punts in favor of a capable player the 49ers have just about zero stock in, that’s a substantial bonus. That experience makes Austin my choice for the 49ers’ seventh wide receiver.