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Jeremy Kerley goes from obscurity to 49ers’ leading receiver


When Bruce Ellington went down with a torn hamstring late in the preseason, 49ers fans slammed their fists onto tables. Ellington was supposed to be the one playmaker Chip Kelly sprinkled his magic offensive powers upon. He was going to move the sticks and dance in the end zone.

To his credit, GM Trent Baalke acted swiftly to find Ellington’s replacement, and borderline robbed the Lions in a trade. Baalke shipped backup offensive lineman Brandon Thomas, who Detroit ended up cutting, for wide receiver Jeremy Kerley. In just one game, Kerley’s 49ers career is already more productive than Thomas’.

The early returns on the trade were nothing but positive after a 28-0 Week 1 trouncing of the Los Angeles Rams. Kerley was Blaine Gabbert’s top target, hauling in 7 catches for 61 yards. A year ago, Kerley had just 16 catches all season with the Jets and hasn’t been a reliable threat since 2012. For a guy who arrived in the building on Aug. 29, his grasp of Kelly’s offense shows off his study habits as a football player.

What does it say that a 5-foot-9 guy the 49ers plucked from obscurity a week ago led the team in receiving Week 1? It’s surely an indictment on the lack of other weapons. Still, any type of productive pass-catching has to be viewed as a positive at this point. In July? Kerley’s career was on the decline, and maybe on it’s last breath. Now, in September? He has potential to be a sticking point in this San Francisco offense.

“It is a good opportunity not just for me, but for this team with having this type of offense that we have,” the 27-year-old Kerley said. “It gives us the ability to do a lot of things. We have a lot of mismatches and we are able to wear a defense down. For me to walk into this is ideal for me.”

Kerley’s first big catch of the night came on fourth down — where Gabbert had misfired on a throw to Torrey Smith just a drive earlier. This time Kelly wisely dialed up a route that went past the first-down marker and Kerley laid out for the terrific grab. This play call shows Kerley shouldn’t just be limited to the slot. You can scheme him up to succeed on the outside.

This next play below is where Kerley will earn his money in San Francisco. Gabbert needs a reliable third-down and 6 target other than Vance McDonald. Enter Kerley, who’s route running routinely toasted Rams corner Lamarcus Joyner, a second round pick from 2014. Kerley is adept at spacing on the football field. You saw it here.

It wasn’t all flawless with Kerley, and Kelly found himself getting a little too cute with the play calling. Here on third-down and 10 in the third quarter, Kerley’s number is called on an inside bubble screen. It’s a highly inefficient play call given the down and distance and it didn’t fool the Rams at all.

It’s one game, but the 49ers did not sorely miss Ellington against the Rams. Granted, Los Angeles has a much weaker secondary than most around the league. Although this week’s opponent, the Carolina Panthers, are starting two rookies at cornerback after losing Pro Bowler Josh Norman to the Redskins. There will be opportunities to pitch and catch the ball.

Regardless of the Rams, results in the NFL are results. Week 1 is something both Kelly and Kerley can build upon as the respective play-caller and playmaker.


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