Pint-sized problem: How 49ers are making up for lack of size at receiver
The San Francisco 49ers have five receivers that, barring injury, appear to have strong holds on roster spots for Week 1 in September: Pierre Garçon, Jeremy Kerley, Marquise Goodwin, Aldrick Robinson and Trent Taylor.
The heights of those wideouts: 6-foot, 5-foot-9, 5-foot-9, 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-8. They aren’t likely to beat the Warriors in a pickup game anytime soon.
The lack of size is apparent throughout the 11-man depth chart, not just the players most likely to make the team. Seven of the 49ers’ receivers are below 6 feet. DeAndre Smelter is the tallest at 6-foot-2.
The standard for elite receivers, in many cases, is the big, fast and athletic pass catcher that can beat defenses both over the top and in traffic. Atlanta’s Julio Jones (6-4, 220) is the obvious example. He logged 3,280 yards receiving with 14 touchdowns the last two seasons with Shanahan as his offensive coordinator.
But 49ers coaches appear okay with their lack of size on the outside.
“Whether a guy a guy is 6-3 or 5-foot-8, for us, it’s can the guy get separation,” receivers coach Mike LaFleur said. “We got a group of guys that know how to separate. We got a group of guys that are fast, wet got guys that can catch the football. So for us, the size thing is no issue.”
Indeed, the 49ers make up for their small frames with quickness and the ability to create space from defenders to open up windows for the quarterback.
Four of those five players expected to make the team are new to San Francisco. All five were signed by Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch, who decided to bring back Kerley after he led the 49ers in receiving in 2016.
Garçon, Robinson and Goodwin were free agents. Taylor was taken in the fifth round in the NFL draft this spring. Shanahan turned over at least 80 percent of the receiving corps after the passing attack ranked dead last in 2016 under Chip Kelly. There’s a chance Shanahan keeps six receivers for the 53-man roster.
When they’re not running routes, they better block. Because the 49ers are going to heavily feature the running game to make sure signal caller Brian Hoyer isn’t the only focal point of the offense. Shanahan devised a top-five rushing attack with Atlanta last season to aid league MVP Matt Ryan and the league’s No. 3 passing attack.
Shanahan’s outside Zone scheme means the receivers may often be lead blockers on wide running plays.
“I give them different things and different ways to block bigger guys,” said LaFleur. “But at the end of the day it’s just going to be (about) ‘want-to’ for them. And I look at a guy like Taylor Gabriel in Atlanta, who I know is not a very big guy. You watch him block and he’s as good of a blocker as anyone. Strong dude, knows exactly what to do and he wanted to do it.
“So we inserted him in Atlanta as much as anybody. And he got it done. Justin Hardy was the same way. Our guys have watched those guys. They know what it’s going to take to get that done and that’s what the expectation is for them.”
Taylor (5-8, 181), the 49ers’ fifth-round pick this spring from Louisiana Tech, is among the most intriguing of the group. He led college football with 136 receptions for 1,803 yards and figures to compete for time in the slot.
He’s small and slow in a straight line but has proven to be a tough cover throughout San Francisco’s offseason program. He regularly finds himself open in one-on-one coverage and in the soft spots of zone defenses.
“There’s plays that are designed to go (Taylor’s) way,” LaFleur said. “He has to beat that man-to-man. If he beats it, the ball’s coming his way. There’s a lot of plays that he’s designed to get a (linebacker) to step up, if the ‘backer doesn’t step up, he finds a way to get the ball and he gets yards.
“No matter what route he was running, the ball was always coming his way and he was finding ways to make plays. That’s what stuck out for us.”