Why wide receiver is no longer a weakness after NFL Draft

The 49ers spent some serious effort upgrading their wide receiver room this offseason, capping it off with a speedy selection in the 2022 NFL Draft.

The San Francisco 49ers entered the 2022 offseason with a notably top-heavy wide receiver room.

Sure, returning wideouts Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk headline this cast. But the depth behind them still left a lot of unanswered questions, particularly after the team elected to bid farewell to fellow receiver Trent Sherfield in free agency, who never truly caught on after an impressive training camp last preseason.

Alright, we have to admit, the situation with Samuel is far from polished over. The disgruntled wideout is still seeking a trade, reportedly, despite the Niners not honoring his request during the 2022 NFL Draft.

Technically, however, Samuel is still very much under contract this year, so let’s just go ahead and assume the whole situation figures itself out in due time.

As far as the greater picture is concerned, San Francisco has to feel a lot better about its wide receiver room with the 2022 draft now complete.

49ers got the missing wide receiver piece they needed in 2022 NFL Draft

The 49ers revealed they were interested in adding more receivers this offseason, grabbing veterans like Ray-Ray McCloud, Malik Turner and Marcus Johnson as free agents.

All three had a notable missing element: speed. And while all three are probably known more for their special teams prowess, it did illustrate the point. The Niners wanted to add a true deep threat, someone who could help take the top off the defense but didn’t necessarily end up getting the lion’s share of targets.

It’s something San Francisco attempted to do with Aiyuk over the first half of 2021, something The Krueg Show’s Larry Krueger told the Niner Noise Podcast prior to the draft itself.

Aiyuk is better served actually catching the ball, though. He doesn’t need to be the diversion.

Well, the 49ers landed such a piece via the NFL Draft.

Grabbing former SMU wide receiver Danny Gray at the tail end of Round 3 generated some mixed reviews, yes. The 6-foot, 186-pounder doesn’t have the most reliable hands and will struggle against press coverage.

His speed, though, is something else.

Having run a 4.33 40-yard time at the NFL Scouting Combine, you’ve probably seen some of his breakaway clips on Twitter already.

That’s the field-stretching element the Niners needed, tried to implement last season with veteran wide receiver Travis Benjamin but couldn’t, and the whole process was hindered by the fact quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t a deep-threat passer anyway.

Soon-to-be starting quarterback Trey Lance, however, does have deep-threat passing abilities, though.

Each 49ers wide receiver will offer something to Kyle Shanahan

Again, with the assumption Samuel isn’t going anywhere, San Francisco’s wide receiver room looks far more complete with Gray in the mix than it did before.

OK, he’s a rookie. There’s a long way to go from being a prospect with potential to a bona fide contributor, and players like Turner and Johnson will challenge Gray for a spot on the depth chart.

In an ideal setting, though, each one of the 49ers’ presumed top-four wideouts offers something unique:

  • Deebo Samuel: Versatility, physicality and playmaking-style yards after the catch
  • Brandon Aiyuk: Prowess against man coverage, a key No. 2 options
  • Jauan Jennings: Big-bodied third-down possession target
  • Danny Gray: Downfield speed

We haven’t mentioned Jennings yet. But any fan who watched the bulk of the 2021 regular-season campaign and the playoffs can attest how it seemed each one of Jennings’ 24 receptions during the regular season last year came at a huge moment.

Indeed, 10 of those 24 catches were on third down, eight of them cresting the first-down marker.

Gray, however, is the unique piece. Assuming he does enough to make the roster, fans still shouldn’t expect him to put up gaudy numbers. No, he’ll run go routes, pulling at least one defensive back well down the field to respect his speed, thereby freeing things up underneath for Samuel, Aiyuk and Jennings.

This won’t get Gray a lot of targets, of course. But the few he does see could easily wind up netting some lofty averages in the yards-per-reception department, particularly with Lance under center.

The point is this: The Niners crop of wideouts is about as complete as it has been under head coach Kyle Shanahan, which is about the best possible situation Lance could have asked for in what’ll be his first year as a starter.

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