Through the first 11 games of the 2017 season, the wide receiver position looked like a glaring weakness for the 49ers. Then Jimmy Garoppolo took over in Week 13 and seemingly overnight the 49ers receiving corps started to look, well, pretty darn good.
Without top target Pierre Garcon, the 49ers averaged 308 yards through the air in Garoppolo’s five starts. For context, the Chargers led the league in passing offense last season while averaging 277 yards per game. Marquise Goodwin, the number one receiver by default, was wildly inconsistent through the season’s first 10 games, but looked reborn with Jimmy G under center, falling just a yard short of having three consecutive 100 yard performances in Garoppolo’s first three starts.
This is all to say that the Garoppolo and Kyle Shanahan combination was good enough to turn a mediocre receiving corps into a productive one, and one that should be even more productive with the return of Garcon next season. Still, the 49ers have over $67 million in cap room heading into this offseason (7th most). Now that we have some clarity on which players will be receiving the franchise tag, let’s look at a handful of receivers who could be worth pursuing at the right price.
It was reported on Tuesday that the Jaguars will not apply the franchise or transition tag to Robinson, who will become an unrestricted free agent on March 14 if he is indeed not re-signed by Jacksonville. Robinson, 24, missed the entire 2017 campaign after sustaining an ACL tear in the opener, but was solid in both 2015 and 2016, catching 153 passes for 2,283 yards and 20 TDs in the two years combined. Robinson was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2015.
A second-round pick by the Jags in 2014, the 6-foot-3, 211 pound Robinson is the big red zone target the 49ers currently lack, something that likely played into their 27th ranked red zone scoring offense last season. Via Eric Branch, of Robinson’s 22 career touchdowns, 18 have come inside the 16-yard line, with 9 inside the 6-yard line.
Robinson is probably the best player on this list, but is also likely to come with the steepest price tag of those on the open market. According to Spotrac, Robinson’s market value is around $13.6 million, a top 10 figure amongst NFL receivers.
Though Landry won’t hit unrestricted free agency after the Dolphins slapped a one-year, $16 million franchise tag on him, the Palm Beach Post is reporting that Miami is still looking to move Landry via trade this offseason. That price tag puts him in line with other No. 1 receivers like Antonio Brown and DeAndre Hopkins, despite the fact that Landry had just 987 receiving yards last season. That’s just a hair under what Marquise Goodwin gained (962) despite catching exactly half the passes (112 to 56).
Even if you do see Landry as having game-changing potential, at 5-foot-11, he seems like a bit of a redundancy style-wise in a 49ers receiving corps that features Garcon, Goodwin and Trent Taylor, none of whom are taller than six feet. However, with the 49ers high draft picks and tons of cap space, they could certainly make a strong play for Landry if they so desire.
Despite earlier reports to the contrary, the Rams have reportedly elected not to place the franchise tag on Watkins, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent just a couple months after being traded to Los Angeles from the Buffalo Bills.
The fourth-overall pick in 2014, many believe Watkins, 24, has the talent to be top-tier NFL receiver despite only gaining 1,000 yards once in his four year career, and playing a complimentary role in the Rams offense last season (39 REC, 583 YDS). Despite those paltry numbers, Watkins was ranked as the 14th best receiver in DYAR according to Football Outsiders, which attempts to measure total value. Field Yates of ESPN also listed Watkins as the “best free agency fit” for the 49ers .
For Watkins, it all comes down to the price tag. His lack of production the last two seasons would make it hard to justify breaking the bank, but his projected market value of $5.9 million per year according to Spotrac seems like an exceptionally reasonable price for a wide receiver with high upside.
Like Robinson, Lee was selected in the second round of the 2014 draft by the Jaguars. After becoming the de facto No. 1 option following Robinson’s injury, Lee led Jacksonville in receptions last year catching 56 balls for 702 yards. Lee was actually better in 2016, with 63 receptions for 851 yards and three touchdowns. Lee also dropped eight passes last season, tied for fifth most in the NFL, and something that was a consistant problem for the 49ers early in the year.
Of the two, Robinson is clearly the better player, but Lee’s estimated market value of $7.5 million is nearly half what the 49ers would likely have to pay for Robinson. It also isn’t too shabby for a 26-year old wide receiver who put up decent numbers in an offense that had the ninth fewest pass attempts in the league last season.