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Three years, three receivers in the first two rounds (and four in the first three) for the 49ers. There has been a concerted effort by the organization to get top-heavy in the receiving talent department.
But all that talent acquisition has the room nearly overflowing. The 49ers have just two complete roster locks in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk in a now jam-packed receiving room. Jalen Hurd is the next-closest lock, but his back injury is a serious concern and he might be more flexible than just a wide receiver.
Travis Benjamin, a 30-year-old speedster signed to a one-year deal, said he knew what he was getting into when he signed with the 49ers, and reunited with Kyle Shanahan.
“Before I even got off the phone we knew on both sides that I was coming in to compete,” Benjamin said in an introductory press conference on Wednesday. “Nothing is given, everything is earned in that receiver room, each and every player knows that. The first day we met, [wide receivers coach] Wes [Welker] told everybody that since we’ve got a lot of guys, we’ve got a first-round pick, this room is going to compete… I was looking forward to that challenge.”
The final roster spots last season were fought for between Richie James Jr., Kendrick Bourne and Jordan Matthews.
James effectively made the roster for two reasons: he was the 49ers’ main return option because Dante Pettis shows fear as a returner, and because he was a backup slot option, while Trent Taylor was a massive health question mark.
Bourne versus Matthews was effectively a battle for the No. 1 slot option; in effect, who’s going to be the third-down receiver, but also who could effectively play outside, where Matthews spent plenty of his time with the Eagles. Clearly, the decision to go with Bourne paid off, as he was one of the elite third-down receivers in the NFL. Matthews wasn’t a bad option, just a casualty of numbers and age.
Right now, the 49ers’ receiving depth chart probably looks something like this:
Hurd is listed as a tight end in my depth chart, though he said in training camp last year that he was training at the Z (flanker) and F (fullback) positions.
He seems more like a positionless player, which is why pinning him down in the depth chart is challenging, especially given the fact that he dealt with a stress fracture in his back last season, a massive red flag injury for a player that physical and that tall (6’4″). Jauan Jennings could be seen as a safety net for him, if he fails to get healthy.
Remember, the 49ers took seven wide receivers on the roster last year, in large part so they could get Hurd and Taylor to injured reserve, but if they take seven again, don’t be surprised.
They took four tight ends last summer; it seems likely they’ll take three this summer, but Hurd could be a fourth, sort of FLEX option. He’ll almost certainly be on the roster in some form, whether it’s to go back to injured reserve or as an active player. If he’s healthy and looks anywhere near the physically domineering, aggressive-handed player we saw last summer, the 49ers are probably favorites to win the NFC West. They already are, but the thought of Aiyuk, Samuel, Hurd, Kittle and a fast, pass-catching back like Jerick McKinnon, Jeff Wilson Jr. or JaMycal Hasty on the field in third down situations is a mismatch migraine.
Dante Pettis was Samuel’s backup last offseason, but could be cut if Hurd is indeed viewed as the backup at Z. Do they want to rely on Hurd as that backup? It’s not immediately clear, but that would be a dicey bet given how much they rely on Samuel.
The slot is the most crowded and perhaps confounding position. Richie James Jr. in the worst position to make the roster given that he’s a questionable returner who the 49ers clearly didn’t feel comfortable enough playing regularly as a wide receiver. Aiyuk should take over return duties.
Jennings seems too slow to be an outside or flanker option, and played almost solely in the slot in college, though he could make a perfect Bourne backup. The issue there is that Trent Taylor was probably ahead of Bourne in the pecking order going into last season after a stellar training camp. That could happen again, and Jimmy Garoppolo loves Taylor. Seemingly, so too does Shanahan.
One option is that Bourne could unseat Pettis as the second Z receiver in addition to being used in the slot. When Emmanuel Sanders slid inside, Bourne would slide outside as the flanker and Deebo Samuel would sometimes line up as the split end, or vice-versa, with Samuel inside and Sanders outside. Either way, Bourne was the flanker, and he was occasionally used as the split end.
Bourne doesn’t have elite speed, but he’s shifty and savvy enough as a route-runner to play at split end, and it seems exceedingly doubtful the 49ers would cut him after last season. There is the possibility of a trade if they desire to keep Pettis and Jennings, and run out of room for Bourne, but a world in which the 49ers keep Pettis over Bourne is one I imagine many people would not want to live in.
It’s hard to say if the 49ers are ready to part with Pettis, though they might need to get there, quick. Shanahan has talked about Pettis’ flexibility as a receiver in playing multiple positions, but he was effectively the backup to Deebo Samuel last year. He did play a significant amount of snaps as the split end in a particularly poor showing against the Seattle Seahawks… the final game of the 2019 season in which he had any significant playing time. After that Week 9 game, he played just nine total offensive snaps for the remainder of the season.
While he moved around the formation, playing, as Shanahan has consistently praised, all three positions, he looked best suited in the slot and struggled most on the outside, which gives him the toughest route to make the team.
It’s exactly why Travis Benjamin has a very real chance to make the roster. He’s taking the place, effectively 1-for-1, of Marquise Goodwin, who was injury-riddled and unproductive for his final two seasons in Santa Clara. Which is to say, that was the same case for Benjamin, who played just five games last year and 12 the season prior. He had just one bona fide season as a starter, in 2015 with the Cleveland Browns. It was a career year, the season after Shanahan departed.
Still, Benjamin’s tape, even from his limited snaps last season, shows two things that Shanahan looks for from an outside receiver: speed and separation. He also has plenty of kick and punt return experience, roles which he said he’s more than happy to take on.
Benjamin acknowledged that on Wednesday, when asked what about his skillset Shanahan likes.
“Speed,” Benjamin said. “Kyle loves speed.”
He has the first step to separate and the long-term speed to turn that initial step into a substantial gap in space. He’s also a veteran who knows Shanahan’s scheme, providing someone who the 49ers don’t have to project. They pretty much know what they’re getting with him, and unlike Matthews, he’s not competing at a crowded position, and has the indefatigable, straight-line speed. He’s actually in the best spot possible to make the roster as the Aiyuk’s split end backup.
If I was making the final roster cuts today, the final seven would be: Samuel, Aiyuk, Hurd, Bourne, Taylor, Jennings, Benjamin.
If I had to guess how it actually plays out, I would expect the 49ers to give Pettis one more year: Samuel, Aiyuk, Hurd, Bourne, Taylor, Pettis, Benjamin.
Again, Hurd is really a FLEX who I expect will be used in the slot, as a flanker, H-back, fullback, tight end and potentially even a straight running back out of two or three-back sets. He will undoubtedly be a ball carrier on end-arounds.
This of course, is all pre-camp assessments. We don’t know who will be healthy by the start, or by the end, nor do we know who the standouts will be. Maybe Shanahan views Bourne or Pettis as capable outside options. But neither have that burner speed. No one, outside of Aiyuk and Samuel, really do, besides Benjamin. That’s why, at this point, assuming all players are healthy, Benjamin has a very good chance to make the roster, especially if Shanahan is uncomfortable making Aiyuk the full-time return man.