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The three elite wide receiver prospects for 49ers at No. 13, and five dark horse candidates

© John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Trading away a franchise superstar in DeForest Buckner for the 13th overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft is a move which will be judged entirely on how the 49ers approach that selection. If they have an opportunity to draft an elite wide receiver and pass, I believe that would be a mistake. Given that the Raiders hold the No. 12 overall pick, there’s a high possibility at one of those wide receivers is off the board.

This is, however, a tremendously gifted wide receiver class, so if that pick is traded down for a pick later in the first round, there are some options that could be argued will be just as capable as the prohibitive elite category.

The three “elite” wide receivers

The following are the three wide receivers who consistently come out as the projected elite. Some mock drafts have others being drafted ahead of them, with Henry Ruggs III the most volatile member of this group, but the general consensus is that they are the top of this wide receiver class.

Henry Ruggs III:

Height: 5’11″

Weight: 188 pounds

Wingspan: 74″

Hand size: 10 1/8″

Best college season (sophomore year – had about the same amount of yards in junior year): 46 receptions, 741 yards, 11 TDs

Pros: He can be a better version of DeSean Jackson, a great player who was bullied at the line of scrimmage and declined with injuries. The rules have shifted to be more in wide receivers’ favor, but jams still happen and it will be a challenge for Ruggs to use anything but speed to get a solid release. Both Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb have substantially better, consistent releases, and both are also coming out as juniors. Ruggs has elite athleticism and can and does steal contested catches. His yards-after-catch ability is probably the best in the draft (with TCU’s Jalen Reagor a solid second).

For a player who came largely from a basketball background, his route-running and footwork is impressive, and he consistently provides headaches on double moves. Despite his size, he fights off contact well and invites it, which, again, could be an injury worry. Against zone coverage, especially, he could be a constant headache for defenses. If he was in say, the Cardinals’ offense, prioritizing speed and utilizing heavy doses of screens and slants, he would be a nightmare to defend.

Cons: One of the main concerns with Ruggs is his size, and not in terms of contested catch battles, but injuries, and fighting through man press coverage. I’m not confident about his ability to beat press consistently, and despite his athleticism, he was often outshone by his receiving cohorts. Granted, the receiving corps at Alabama last season might have four future first-round picks in Ruggs, Jeudy, Jalen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, but Ruggs could sometimes appear like a fourth option. He’s not going to be great blocker, but is decent for his size.

49ers fit: He could be what Shanahan hoped he could find in Marquise Goodwin. Of course, part of the issue is that the 49ers’ offense isn’t reliant on having a deep threat. Ruggs could be used on the outside or in the slot, and is most devastating, like Deebo Samuel, when he gets space to run after the catch. Like with Jalen Reagor (who has a much larger frame), the question is whether that’s what the 49ers are actually looking for in a wide receiver.

Jerry Jeudy

Height: 6’1″

Weight: 193 pounds

Wingspan: 76″

Hand size: 9 1/2″

Best college season (sophomore year): 68 receptions, 1,315 yards, 14 TDs

Pros: He’s an absolute, constant nightmare. He can be extremely physical, but has a ton of wiggle and some of the best route-running polish in the draft. It shows off most when he head-fakes and uses double moves to find himself in acres of space. Jeudy is deceivingly quick, and combines both his knack for deception and pace with elite footwork. He has shown the capacity and strength to be a tremendous blocker, and knows how to find the gaps in zone coverage and sit. When a play breaks down, his ability to find space in a scramble drill is consistent. He’s high energy, and works hard, coming back to block when not involved in the play.

Cons: Jeudy has had some issues with concentration drops, especially in contested catch situations. Outside of that, though, you’d be nitpicking to try and find things to criticize about his game.

49ers fit: Would be an immediate starter alongside Deebo Samuel, and allow the 49ers to stick with a variety of two wide-receiver sets. It would be interesting to see how Shanahan would approach who to use in the slot, assuming Emmanuel Sanders doesn’t return. Jeudy has proven he’s capable of playing there or outside. That’s a tremendous problem to have, and the 49ers should draft him or Lamb if either are on the board.

CeeDee Lamb

Height: 6’1 5/8″

Weight: 198 pounds

Wingspan: 76 5/8″

Hand size: 9 1/4″

Best college season (sophomore year): 62 receptions, 1,327 yards, 14 TDs

Pros: Lamb is the most likely to be a star in the NFL. He was the best route-runner at the Combine. When focused, or in a contested catch situation for a high ball, he shows he’s got some of the best hands in the draft. He’s extraordinarily physical, and this part will get Shanahan excited: he’s an aggressive, willing blocker. He actually had better stats in year three under Jalen Hurts than with Kyler Murray, despite that talent drop off, averaging a stellar 21.4 yards per catch. He has the size, mentality and polish to be great, which is why he’s my favorite wide receiver in this draft class (although the drop from him to Jeudy isn’t steep at all).

Cons: Maybe it’s an elite wide receiver thing, but he, like Jeudy has struggled with concentration drops. Unlike Jeudy, he excels in contested catch situations and his issue is more when he has too much time to think.

49ers fit: Much like Jeudy, would be an immediate starter alongside Deebo Samuel. He screams star wide receiver. Along with some other journalists, I had the chance to see Jeudy, Lamb, Mims, Reagor and some other wide receivers perform in the second set of throwing and catching drills at the Combine. During that portion, Lamb looked like a bona fide stud, and stood out from the rest. Jeudy also looked great, along with Mims and Reagor (who looked like he was trying too hard to stand out) and my sleeper wide receiver pick from SMU: James Proche. But as far as Lamb goes, I would be absolutely shocked if he’s not a household name in two years time.

The dark horse candidates

The following is from KNBR’s Combine breakdown of 10 wide receivers the 49ers should have their eye on. The following five stand out as the best of that group, and potential options should the 49ers decide to trade down with one or both of their first-round picks, with the most likely scenario being both CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy off the board, and San Francisco viewing a trade down as a way to increase value for another receiver they like over Ruggs.

Outside of Jeudy and Lamb, I think Brandon Aiyuk and Justin Jefferson would be the two best options for a 49ers trade down.

Brandon Aiyuk

Height: 5’11 5/8″

Weight: 208 pounds

Wingspan: 80″

Hand size: 9 3/4″

Projected draft position: (Reuter: Round 1, Pick 24, Saints; Miller: Round 2, Pick 40: Cardinals; Marino: Round 1, Pick 30, Packers)

Best college season (senior year – started at junior college): 65 receptions, 1,192 yards, 8 TDs

Pros: Creates fantastic separation and adjusts to difficult-to-catch passes impressively. Runs less-than-common routes for college wide receivers clean and fairly tight. His change of direction and release make him a constant problem for defensive backs, especially in zone coverage. He’s a solid blocker and enjoys getting physical. His speed is deceptive and he presents myriad problems once the ball is in his hands. Very shifty and difficult to tackle. Was coached by Herm Edwards at ASU, who he credited with providing constant advice and notes for improvement given his experience as an NFL head coach and defensive back.

Cons: Doesn’t always break off deeper, out-cutting or quick stopping routes effectively. Separation off the line is much better than it is when asked to create separation on say a hook or out route. Struggles breaking off press coverage by using his hands.

Laviska Shenault

Height: 6’0 5/8″

Weight: 227 pounds

Wingspan: 76 1/4″

Hand size: 9″

Projected draft position: (Reuter: Round 2, pick 33, Bengals; Miller: Round 2, pick 33, Bengals; Marino: Round 1, Pick 23, Patriots)

Best college season (sophomore year): 86 receptions, 1,011 yards, 6 TDs

Pros: Excels at creating space for himself past the line of scrimmage and shows the capacity to run very crisp routes. He breaks off the top of routes with sharpness and can create space with physicality often without being flagged. Has a very good, thick frame, and can deal with press coverage well if he mixes up his approaches. Was used in a variety of ways effectively much like Deebo Samuel. Has solid hands and can use his body to make contested catches.

Cons: He has room for improvement as a route runner especially with in-breaking, non-vertical routes. Not always the most willing blocker or assertive in breaking out of his routes despite ability to do both well.

  • The main issue in evaluating Shenault is that his quarterback at Colorado, Steven Montez, was terrible. Scuds, duds, you name it.
  • One of his greatest attributes is his frame and physicality, but if he’s going to survive in the league, he’ll have to avoid relying on that. He’s had a number of injuries and subsequent surgeries, including a core injury that caused him to pull up hurt after running his 40-yard dash.

Denzel Mims

Height: 6’2 7/8″ 

Weight: 207 pounds

Wingspan: 78 1/2″

Hand size: 9 3/8″

Projected draft position: (Reuter: Round 2, Pick 60, Ravens; Miller: Round 3, Pick 102, Steelers; Marino: After Round 2)

Best college season (senior year, sophomore year a close second): 66 receptions, 1,020 yards, 12 TDs

Pros: Great size, length and athleticism. Extraordinarily shifty and succeeds often in finding gaps in zone coverage. A very physical and willing blocker.  Downfield speed is tremendous and is a consistent problem on deep routes. Massive potential for contested and tight window catches.

Cons: His release and effort on short routes is concerning. Doesn’t demonstrate fantastic release in those situations and fails to break away the way he does on vertical stems. Has some concerns with concentration drops. Doesn’t always use his physicality to defeat jamming in press coverage at the line of scrimmage and can get pushed back despite his size. His motor and consistency is a concern.

Justin Jefferson

Height: 6’1 1/4″

Weight: 202 pounds

Wingspan: 78″

Hand size: 9 1/8″

Projected draft position: (Reuter: Round 2, Pick 36, Giants; Miller: Round 1, Pick 24, Saints; Marino: Round 1, Pick 24, Saints)

Best college season (senior year): 111 receptions, 1,540 yards, 18 TDs

Pros: Tremendous hands, flexibility and catch-in-traffic ability and much quicker than he’s given credit for. Very good frame and has demonstrated he ends up with the ball in his hands in the end zone frequently. Very gifted at coming back to the ball and adjusting his body to make impressive catches. His physicality is very useful and he provides a very valuable blocking presence.

Cons: He doesn’t always create space for himself off his release or on his first cut. He doesn’t have the highest motor and sometimes gives up on plays if he’s not initially targeted.

  • Dude just makes plays
  • Fantastic size and hands, just finds open space
  • Way faster than people expect
  • Can sometimes be lazy with route running

Jalen Reagor

Height: 5’10 5/8″ 

Weight: 206 pounds 

Wingspan: 74 3/8″

Hand size: 9 1/2″

Projected draft position: (Reuter: Round 2, Pick 48, Jets; Miller: Round 2, Pick 57, Texans; Marino: Round 1, Pick 15, Broncos)

Best college season (sophomore year): 72 receptions, 1,061 yards, 9 TDs

Pros: Good lord is this man quick. Henry Ruggs III said he hopes to break the NFL Combine record by running a 4.22-second 40-yard dash, but he might just be competing with Reagor for that title. Asked for a comparison, Reagor described himself as similar to the 49ers’ Deebo Samuel; he’s got that same bulldog nature to him. He’s extraordinarily quick, strong and aggressive. He is extraordinarily versatile. He was used out of the slot, out wide, as an H-back, motioned, and used in much the same way the 49ers use Samuel. He’s also very confident, but not arrogant. In speaking to media he credited TCU teammate Jeff Gladney as the best cornerback in this draft and said that’s why he improved his game so much. He has very good hands and can make contested catches over the middle. Tremendous hands when focused and has shown the ability to make spectacular catches. Yards after catch potential for days.

Cons: Size and concentration. Has made drops that are more concentration-based than talent-based. His blocking leaves lots of room for improvement; while he’s very physical, his use of his hands and hand-placement are inconsistent. From the 49ers’ perspective, he may be too similar to Samuel. There’s no harm in having two dynamic, versatile wide receivers, but they may prefer a bigger wide receiver here who provides above average red zone and contested catch ability.


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