JEFF ROBERSON / Associated Press

St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams' top draft pick, wide receiver Tavon Austin from West Virginia, address the media.

Matthew Barrows: 49ers' division rivals draft small, fast receivers

Published: Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Monday, Apr. 29, 2013 - 9:20 am

SANTA CLARA – They're pitching a sequel in St. Louis: The Greatest Show on Turf, the Next Generation.

The Rams didn't just use their top pick in the NFL draft on Tavon Austin, the electric wideout who in highlight reels makes defenders appear to be operating in slow motion, they drafted his West Virginia teammate Stedman Bailey, too. Bailey had 1,622 receiving yards last season and averaged nearly two touchdown catches per game. And his 25 receiving touchdowns led the nation.

Yet he was considered the Mountaineers' second-best wideout and lasted until the third round on Friday.

"We're going to lobby with the league to see if we can play with more than one ball," Rams coach Jeff Fisher joked with the St. Louis media. "We're going to need more than one ball."

The NFC West emerged as the NFL's top division last year based largely on defense and grit. The Seahawks and 49ers ranked first and second, respectively, in fewest points allowed. The Rams tied for the league lead in sacks. The only outlier was the Cardinals, and they were a respectable 12th overall in total defense.

The black-and-blue division has added some flash for next season.

The Rams lost wide receiver Danny Amendola in free agency but replaced him with Austin (5-foot-8) and Bailey (5-10). Seattle traded for wide receiver Percy Harvin, the player Austin most often was compared to in the run-up to the draft.

The Cardinals drafted a potential third-down ace, Ryan Swope. The wide receiver caught 161 passes over the past two seasons in Texas A&M's prolific offense and, in February, he ran the second-fastest 40-yard dash – he tied Austin at 4.34 seconds – at the scouting combine.

Were those picks made specifically with the 49ers, who have won the division the last two years, in mind?

Probably not, but while San Francisco's defense has been very good overall the past two seasons, its soft spot has been keeping pace with small, shifty slot receivers. Players such as Amendola, Harvin and the Giants' Victor Cruz have given the 49ers and nickel cornerback Carlos Rogers fits.

In Week 10 last year, for example, Amendola had 11 catches for 102 yards against the 49ers. In the rematch three weeks later, Amendola was hurt, but his replacement, Chris Givens, managed 11 catches for 92 yards.

The 49ers were winless against the Rams in 2012, and they had a real blind spot for St. Louis' short passing game. Fisher certainly won't change his plan of attack after drafting Austin and Bailey, and the Seahawks and Cardinals likely will take a page from the Rams' plan of attack, too.

What's interesting is that the 49ers have countered this proliferation of small, jitterbug receivers in the division not by getting quicker but by getting bigger.

They added 6-2 cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha in free agency and finished the draft Saturday with 6-2 cornerback Marcus Cooper from Rutgers. In fact, aside from starter Tarell Brown, all of the 49ers' top cornerbacks are 6 feet or taller. The 49ers also picked three defensive linemen to augment a pass rush that wilted at the end of last season.

Division rivals are adding small, quick receivers. San Francisco's counter move seems to be making sure opposing quarterbacks have a hard time getting rid of the ball and preventing undersized receivers from getting off the line of scrimmage.

That is, they're battling mite with might.

Read Matthew Barrows' blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers and listen for his reports Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 1320. Follow him on Twitter @mattbarrows.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matthew Barrows



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