The largest question mark looming over the 49ers’ 53-man roster hangs above the wide receiver group. Figuring out which players to hang onto at that spot may be a key difference between a deep playoff run and not.
San Francisco has 13 wide receivers on their 90-man roster, and conceivably as many as seven spots available on the final roster. Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk headline that group. After that the depth gets shakier.
Here’s a look at the 49ers’ wide receivers going into camp and their place in what could be the fiercest roster battle:
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Samuel’s dual-threat ability as a pass catcher and runner makes him one of the NFL’s most unique offensive weapons, and his hard-nosed running style is a tone-setter for a passing game built on yards after the catch. Health is a concern for the third-year receiver after he missed nine games last year. Samuel is extremely productive when he’s on the field though. In 22 games he has 90 catches, 1,193 receiving yards and four touchdowns through the air. He also has 185 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries.
(AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Aiyuk as a rookie last season made it clear why the 49ers traded up in the first round to take him. In just 12 games he posted 748 yards and five touchdowns on 60 receptions. He added a pair of touchdowns and 77 rushing yards on six carries. He’s not the same dual-threat Samuel is, but he offers a nice complement as someone who can stretch the field vertically. Aiyuk may wind up being the best pure receiver on the team.
Richie James Jr.
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This is where things get cloudy. James, a 2018 seventh-round choice, hasn’t carved out much of a role on offense in any of his three seasons. He’s earned just 59 targets in 40 games, but he did turn those targets into 38 receptions for 689 yards and three touchdowns. That home-run ability should conceivably make him a threat in the 49ers’ offense, and if they had to play a game in mid-June he’d probably be the third WR. He’ll need a strong camp to maintain that status.
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Hurd lost his rookie year to a preseason back injury, and lost his second year to a preseason torn ACL. The ceiling for Hurd is exceedingly high after his successful college career as a running back and receiver. If he’s healthy, he’s probably the favorite to earn the No. 3 receiver job. His experience as a running back and also gives him an edge in making the club. Hurd needs first to stay healthy. If he does that and has at least a decent camp he’ll be in the mix for a sizable role on offense.
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There’s a chance Sanu falls out of the running for a roster spot eventually, but offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel was effusive in his praise for the veteran while speaking with reporters during OTAs. Sanu may be in line for a roster spot going into camp, but the 31-year-old has to continue playing at a high level and would likely need to earn the No. 3 job to make the team.
(AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
The path to a roster spot for Sherfield starts with his special teams contributions, but he could conceivably carve out an offensive role as well. He’ll be an interesting player to watch because the 49ers added him relatively early in free agency, but he only caught 28 passes for 340 yards and a touchdown in 44 games with the Arizona Cardinals. Special teams play will be a significant factor in determining the back end of the 53-man roster, and Sherfield checks that box.
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Benjamin opted out of the 2020 season after signing with San Francisco. His speed makes him one of the few vertical field-stretchers on the roster, but that’s not something of the utmost importance for the 49ers. Benjamin’s best season came all the way back in 2015, and since then he’s only gotten less productive with a combined 52 catches, 783 yards and five touchdowns across 33 games in his last three seasons.
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Cracraft was thrust into action by the 49ers last season when injuries and COVID-19 left them thin at the position. He turned 112 offensive snaps into six catches and 41 yards. He offers some special teams value which may be his only real path to a roster spot.
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Fowler was a late addition to the 90-man roster. In six years he’s hauled in 97 catches for 1,101 and six touchdowns in 68 games and his special teams role deflated over the last three seasons. He’ll have chances to earn a role on offense, but the climb for a roster spot is steep unless Fowler adds value on special teams.
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, Pool)
Jennings is a fascinating player. The 2020 seventh-round choice missed the roster last year but spent the season on the practice squad. He dealt with an injury that sidelined him for a large portion of the season. He was excellent after the catch during his career at Tennessee even without elite speed. That lack of speed could pigeonhole him into a slot role in the NFL, but if he’s effective there, he has a legitimate shot to make the club.
Austin Watkins Jr.
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There may not be a player with more to gain from training camp than Watkins, an undrafted rookie from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. His big-bodied, physical style could make him a contributor on offense, but he’ll need to have a very good camp just to make the squad. He’ll be one of the more intriguing players to watch throughout the preseason.
(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)
The former No. 7 overall pick of the Bears in the 2015 draft hasn’t been able to put it together as a pro after injuries derailed the start of his career. He’s on the outside looking in, and even a good showing in training camp may not be enough.
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Jones hasn’t played in the NFL since 2018. The 49ers added him during OTAs. He has 11 catches for 80 yards and one touchdown in his career.