No 49ers position group has as many question marks as wide receiver. In 2016, the group was among the worst in the NFL, composed of castoffs and little-regarded youngsters. Jeremy Kerley, a late training camp addition in a trade with the Lions, wound up as the team’s top wideout with 64 receptions for 667 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, as the 49ers have just concluded organized team activities (OTAs), the wide receiver corps still has much to prove.
The 49ers have added veterans Pierre Garcon, Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson, re-signed Kerley, drafted Trent Taylor and are hoping Bruce Ellington and DeAndre Smelter are healthy enough to prove themselves after injuries.
Garcon is the most proven player in the group, and comes with experience playing in the system of head coach Kyle Shanahan while in Washington. After that, nothing is certain, though Goodwin and Robinson offer a dose of speed missing in 2016.
In fact, this week Kenneth Arthur of the Sports On Earth website ranked the 49ers as having the third-worst group of pass catchers in the league, only above the Jets (No. 31) and Rams (No. 32).
Arthur wasn’t impressed with Kerley’s production in 2016 and added: “Garcon is very good but didn’t go to a situation that would seem to set him up for a productive season. There’s not much talent or depth here, though Kyle Shanahan might be able to get a little more out of them than most coaches. That still won’t be much.”
The hope is that Shanahan’s system – which has featured good passing attacks in Atlanta, Washington and Cleveland – and an upgrade at quarterback in Brian Hoyer will help this group be much better in 2017.
Last season, with Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, the 49ers ranked 32nd in the NFL in passing at just 182 yards per game.
With Shanahan at the helm, it appears the 49ers – from what they’ve shown in OTAs – will be much more likely to seek bigger plays in the passing game. As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group noted this week, Hoyer played well for the Browns and Shanahan in 2014, when Shanahan was offensive coordinator. He averaged a career-best 7.6 yards per pass attempt that season, far better than the 6.4 average of Niners QBs in 2016. And, Hoyer graded as the fourth best in the NFL that season in throws of 21 to 30 yards and was 11th from 31-40 yards.
Hoyer averaged 7.2 yards per attempt in 2016 in an injury-shortened season with the Bears.
Niners receivers coach Mike LaFleur told Inman that Hoyer’s ability and arm strength should help this group of wideouts be more effective in 2017, especially on deep routes.
It will just take time, he said.
“It’s going to take the guys we have time – the Pierres, the Aldricks, the Marquises – to get the rhythm, what angle, how far can he actually throw it,” said LaFleur. “I know Hoyer has a lot of confidence in his arm how far he can throw it, and we have some guys that can run and get down the field.”