Even after the draft, the 49ers have big question marks at wide receiver going into 2016.
As the Niners transition into a new offense under head coach Chip Kelly, the team essentially has just one proven wideout – Torrey Smith – and a large cast of players who will have the opportunity to prove themselves in larger roles, including Quinton Patton, former Canadian Football League standout Eric Rogers, Bruce Ellington, Jerome Simpson and 2015 injury redshirt prospect DeAndre Smelter.
Now added to that mix is sixth-round choice Aaron Burbridge.
Despite consistent production for Michigan State against high-level competition in the Big Ten, Burbridge wasn’t an acclaimed prospect heading into this draft. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, Burbridge has decent size, but he’s not a burner. His 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine was 4.56, not an elite time by any means. One knock against Burbridge is he doesn’t have the speed to get deep against NFL cornerbacks.
But the 49ers are hoping Burbridge has the ability to find open spots in coverage and be a possession receiver in the mold of Anquan Boldin, the 49ers veteran standout who is an unrestricted free agent likely to sign with another team this offseason.
Burbridge was the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year in 2015, with 85 catches for 1,258 yards, seven touchowns and a 14.8-yard average per reception. His senior season was his breakout year, but he was productive in his three previous seasons as a Spartan in a smaller role, with seasons of 29, 22 and 29 catches from 2012 through 2014.
The 49ers apparently view Burbridge as a slot receiver, even though that wasn’t his role at Michigan State, noted Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee.
“So, I guess I’m a slot receiver,” Burbridge told Barrows and other Bay Area media after he was selected on Day 3 of the draft. “I can do both.”
Burbridge is confident he can play at the next level.
“I bring heart,” he told the MLive media group this past weekend. “A lot of people feel like I’m not athletic or I’m not big enough, but I play the game. I love this game so I play with heart. I make plays. I’m not as big as most receivers but I play big just like them, so I feel I can make plays and be productive.”
Burbridge says he has a toughness that allows him to compete for balls against defenders and make important catches.
The analytic website Pro Football Focus gave Burbridge the 10th highest grade of any wideout going into this year’s draft based on his production in 2015, including a nine-catch, 132-yard game against top Michigan cornerback Jourdan Lewis. But it also says his lack of speed, a propensity for drops and lack of elite athleticism are hurdles he’ll have to overcome.
“The team who drafts him will be getting a player who has never shown a lot of consistency,” says the PFF scouting report.
With the 49ers’ situation at wideout, however, he’s sure to get plenty of opportunity to prove his worth.