With the start of training camp about three weeks away, now is the perfect time to take a look at every player on the San Francisco 49ers roster, and how they fit with the team heading into training camp. So far, we’ve covered the quarterbacks and running backs. Today let’s take a look at the wide receivers.
San Francisco showed how much they believed in Aiyuk when they moved up in the 2020 draft to select him with the 25th pick. The former Arizona State standout proved that the belief was well founded, putting together one of the best rookie seasons for a wide receiver in team history. Had Aiyuk been able to play the full 16-game schedule it is very likely that he would have broken Jerry Rice’s team record for rookie receiving yards.
Aiyuk showed flashes of his playmaking ability early on, but really began to show his abilities with a strong string of games during the second half of the season. During a six-week stretch that began with the victory in New England, Aiyuk would average 7.5 receptions and 94.6 yards per game to establish himself as one of the top rookie receivers in the NFL
Aiyuk is the smoothest route runner on the 49ers, looking more like a veteran than a rookie. It should be no surprise that his strongest stretch of play came in the second half of the year. The NFL game moves much faster than it does in college and it took him about that long to acclimate. If Aiyuk can stay healthy and build on his rookie campaign, he should challenge for a spot on the Pro Bowl roster in 2021.
Expectations in 2020 ran high for Samuel after a strong rookie season. Those expectations would go unfulfilled however as a foot injury while working out prior to training camp and hamstring issues throughout the season would limit Samuel to only seven games in his sophomore campaign.
When Samuel was able to get on the field, he definitely made his presence known. In two upset victories over the Los Angeles Rams and another over the New England Patriots, Samuel was arguably the best offensive player. In those three games he carved his way through the opposing defense with 22 receptions for 264 yards and his lone touchdown on the year.
Samuel is one of the top weapons on the 49ers offense, and his mere presence on the field creates openings for his teammates due to the amount of attention he requires from the defense. He may not be the most polished of route runners, but his versatility more than makes up for this. On any given play Samuel can be found running a slant, catching a screen, taking a push pass on a jet sweep or lining up in the backfield.
The only question mark to Samuel is his health. He has missed games in both seasons with the 49ers and had injury issues during his time in college at South Carolina as well. If Samuel is able to stay healthy in 2021, the sky is the limit for his production and the 49ers offense.
Richie James Jr.
Each time that Kyle Shanahan has given an opportunity for James to perform, the three-year veteran has stepped up. This makes one wonder about the lack of opportunities for James.
One possible explanation for the lack of playing time for James is that at 5’9” he is just too small for what Shanahan is looking for in the third wide receiver role that was held down by Kendrick Bourne the past two seasons. At 6’1”, Bourne provide a much more physical presence and showed the ability to not only come up with key receptions, but block well in the run game as well.
Despite the lack of size, James has proven to be a threat when given the opportunity and should be in line to make the team in the final year of his rookie contract.
Sanu began the 2020 season in San Francisco, playing a total of 40 snaps the first three games before being released as Deebo Samuel was set to return from injury. Sanu would eventually join the Detroit Lions for seven games. Sanu’s 11.1 yards per reception would match his productivity from 2016 when he was playing with the Atlanta Falcons and offensive coordinator Kyle Shananan.
With Bourne’s departure in free agency, the 49ers have a need for a big-bodied third receiver. Sanu fits that role well and looks as though he could be a viable option.
“You can tell that he doesn’t expect anything to be given to him, and he’s trying to earn his spot on this team,” offensive coordinator McDaniel told the media during OTAs. “So, it was very exciting to see him perform. He was doing very well. And if he comes back to training camp in that same shape, he’s going to be a guy that is going to be tough to beat out for that final roster.”
Coming in at 6’3” and 212 pounds, the 2020 seventh-round draft pick is another size fit for the 49ers. With no organized team activities before training camp last year, Jennings struggled. This led to Jennings being left off the roster, but the 49ers were able to sign Jennings to the practice squad. He was making strides toward being promoted to the active roster before being sidelined for the season with an injury in late October.
Early reports from OTAs this season have been extremely positive for Jennings. Look for Jennings to continue to improve throughout the summer and make the final roster due this, as well as his ability to play special teams.
Benjamin opted out of playing in 2020 after agreeing to a free agent deal with the 49ers during the offseason. He played under Shanahan as a member of the Cleveland Browns in 2014, averaging 17.4 yards per reception.
Benjamin’s explosiveness and ability to return kicks make him an attractive option for the bottom of the depth chart. On the downside, Benjamin has played in only five games since the 2018 season.
The Washington State product joined the 49ers in late August and spent most of the first half of 2020 on the practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster for the Thursday night game against the Green Bay Packers after most of the wide receiver corps was lost due to Covid testing. He would remain on the active roster throughout the remainder of the season.
Cracraft seemed to have caught the attention of Shanahan, as he continued to be on the field week after week despite a lack of production. As an exclusive rights free agent, the 49ers were able to bring him back. Look for Cracraft to provide good competition for one of the final spots on the roster due to his ability on special teams.
Since being taken with pick No. 67 in the 2019 draft, Hurd has been an enigma. Hurd has seen only one quarter of one preseason game since joining the 49ers. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, Hurd possesses the big body that Shanahan covets from the third receiver position.
If healthy, Hurd could provide a great deal of flexibility to the 49ers offense. Hurd spent his first three collegiate seasons playing running back at Tennessee before transferring to Baylor and moving to wide receiver. Even with the position change, Hurd carried the ball 48 times in 12 games at Baylor.
Hurd suffered a back injury in that Dallas preseason game that would keep him out for the entire 2019 season and prevent him from flying with the team to Miami for the Super Bowl. Hurd would follow that up by suffering a torn ACL in training camp to end his 2020 season.
49ers general manager John Lynch provided an update on Hurd when he spoke with the media shortly after wrapping up the draft.
"Jalen's rehab is going well," Lynch said. "We're eager to get him back here because he's been rehabbing away. But we check in regularly, and he's doing a nice job with his rehab, so we're excited about that.
“I think Jalen's always been a hard worker, and has just had some tough luck with that stuff. He'll continue to work hard, and we think he'll be ready to go."
Hurd was not on the field during the portions of the offseason OTA period that was open to the media, so his status for 2021 is still up in the air. At this point it would be safe to say that getting anything out of Hurd should be considered a plus.
Sherfield spent the past two seasons as a special teams ace for the Arizona Cardinals, playing 43 percent of special teams snaps in 2019 and 50 percent in 2020.
In addition to his role on special teams, the undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt has seen limited action at wide receiver. After hauling in 19 catches for 210 yards as a rookie in 2018, Sherfield saw his snaps and productivity dwindle to only nine receptions for 130 yards in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Aiyuk and Samuel are the only two sure things to make the final roster. Actually, we can add James as well, but his role is up in the air. With the 49ers likely to keep six wide receivers that would leave only three open spots.
Mohamed Sanu and Jauan Jennings will be battling for the big-bodied third wide receiver role that Bourne held down the past few seasons. Both have performed well throughout the OTA period and look ready to make an impression in 2021. Hurd could join this battle as well if he can stay healthy through training camp.
The last spot on the roster will be decided between Sherfield, Cracraft and Benjamin. All three have the ability to contribute on special teams.