© Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
At each of his stops, Kyle Shanahan has helped NFL receivers enjoy their best seasons. In his two years as Houston’s offensive coordinator, Andre Johnson amassed 3,144 total yards. Pierre Garcon led the NFL with 113 receptions in 2013 with Shanahan as Washington’s offensive coordinator. When Shanahan moved on to Atlanta, he oversaw Julio Jones amass 1,871 yards, the second-most in a single season in NFL history, in 2015.
Shanahan may not find those types of all-world talents when he coaches the South team in the Senior Bowl Jan. 26, but the 49ers head coach knows what he’s looking for.
Last year, Shanahan hand-picked Dante Pettis. The 49ers traded up 15 picks to select Pettis, a first-team All-Pac 12 receiver and record-setting return man, with the No. 44 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Despite that production, Shanahan was more impressed with Pettis’ breadth of skills: his hands, route-running, ability to make people miss, fearlessness, and coachability. The latter trait is best discerned when you work face to face with someone, and Shanahan will have the opportunity to learn more about the 2019 receiver class when he coaches seven of those prospects in two weeks.
“You have to take everything into play on receivers,” Shanahan said last month. “Sometimes, you got to look at the combine, running routes on air, and they hadn’t been working on it much. You have to take into account they might not be a finished product.”
Evaluating receivers is tricky, Shanahan says, because the college and professional levels use them so differently. College offenses use lots of bubble screens, giving NFL personnel minimal resources to assess a receiver’s route-running ability. Only a few college defenses play majority man coverage.
That’s why Shanahan, a former receiver at the University of Texas and wide receivers coach with the Texans, finds other ways to evaluate.
“Sometimes, you can’t see it on a route,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, you got to watch a guy like Pettis on a punt return, and be like, ‘He doesn’t do this move on any of his routes, but look what he does with a guy in front of him with the ball in his hands.’”
Shanahan and the rest of the 49ers personnel staff will take a long look at the crop of receivers in the 2019 draft class. The 49ers could use more playmakers. In 2018, their leading wide receiver was Kendrick Bourne, whose 487 yards ranked tied for No. 97 in the NFL. Pettis showed flashes, but his season was punctuated with knee injuries. Marquise Goodwin started just eight games, and so did Pierre Garcon, due to injuries. The 49ers received limited production in the slot from Trent Taylor and Richie James.
The Senior Bowl offers some intriguing prospects.
Let’s review the ones Shanahan will coach.
Marshall’s Tyre Brady
Measurables: 6-foot-3, 208 pounds
The Miami transfer stood out in his lone season with the Thundering Herd, producing 71 catches, 1,002 yards, and nine touchdowns in 2018. He’s a big-bodied receiver who has shown an ability to make contested catches, something you could argue the 49ers need. Brady’s best 40-time, according to draftscout.com, was clocked at 4.47 seconds.
Old Dominion’s Travis Fulgham
Measurables: 6-foot-3, 215 pounds
Fulgham is another big target who can win jump-balls or burn you with downfield speed. Those traits, as well as superior blocking, project well at the next level, as the Draft Network’s Brad Kelly outlined. Fulgham had 63 catches, 1,083 yards, nine touchdowns, earning him second-team All-Conference USA honors this past season.
Baylor’s Jalen Hurd
Measurables: 6-foot-4, 229 pounds
(Baylor highlight unavailable)
At 6-foot-4, Hurd is one of the most gifted athletes in the 2019 receiver class. He played his first two college seasons alongside Saints Pro Bowler Alvin Kamara at running back. Hurd transferred his junior year and converted to receiver. He originally switched positions because the NFL life expectancy is longer for a receiver. This past season, he compiled 946 receiving yards, 209 rushing yards, and 11 total touchdowns with Baylor. He’s viewed as a top-two round pick.
Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow
Measurables: 5-foot-10, 185 pounds
Renfrow has played in more meaningful games than the rest of this group combined. He scored the go-ahead touchdown to lift Clemson over Alabama in the 2016 National Championship. He won his second title Monday. Renfrow was an integral piece in the Clemson offense throughout the past four seasons, posting 186 catches for 2,133 yards and 15 touchdowns during that time. Renfrow, a sharp route-runner and reliable pass-catcher, will fit with a team that uses slot receivers liberally.
South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel
Measurables: 6-foot, 210 pounds
Look no farther than the Clemson matchup to see Samuel’s capabilities against the closest semblance to an NFL defense at the college level. Samuel piled up 10 catches for 210 yards and three touchdowns in South Carolina’s 56-35 loss against Clemson in the second week of the season. Samuel fell victim to poor quarterback play, but he still compiled 62 catches, 882 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 2018. He’s a fluid playmaker who projects well to the NFL.
West Virginia’s David Sills V
Measurables: 6-foot-4, 203 pounds
Sills is the red-zone target many 49ers fans covet. His 15 receiving touchdowns ranked second in the nation this past season. Sills formed a terrific connection with quarterback Will Grier, who will also play for the South squad in this month’s Senior Bowl.
Louisville’s Jaylen Smith
Measurables: 6-foot-4, 220 pounds
Smith is another big-bodied receiver on Shanahan’s sideline in the upcoming game. The Louisville product’s best year came as a junior, when he produced 60 catches for 980 yards and seven touchdowns. He took a step back his senior year, posting 36 catches, 550 yards, and one touchdown.