49ers Blog and Q&A

News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

February 12, 2009
49ers have 'deep' questions at wideout

Mike Singletary wants to make one thing clear - the 49ers' offense will not rely solely on the run in 2009. Singletary stressed the importance of the passing game on a conference call about new OC Jimmy Raye last month, and he reiterated that point with me yesterday. "You've certainly got to pass the ball to win, and you've got to pass to score. It's one of those things where we'll have a good blend of running and passing."

When Raye was the offensive coordinator with the Chiefs in 2000, Elvis Grbac threw for 4,169 yards. His prime target was tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught 93 passes for 1,203 yards. But receiver Derrick Alexander actually had more yards - 1,391 - on fewer catches - 78 - giving him a gaudy 17.8 yards-per-catch average. Only Randy Moss, Torry Holt and Albert Connell had better averages among starting receivers that season. In other words, the Chiefs weren't afraid to throw deep.

One of the questions facing the 49ers this offseason is who will be catching the passes in their offense in 2009? Tight end Vernon Davis certainly will see more passes after spending last season in Mike Martz's wide receiver-oriented system. The 49ers also have sky-high expectations for second-year wideout Josh Morgan, who flashed an excellent combination of speed, power and leaping ability last season but who was sidetracked by injuries and a staph infection. Morgan likely will be the favorite to start at split end.


After that, the receiver situation gets murky. Isaac Bruce would be the starter at the other receiver spot. However, Singletary said Wednesday that Bruce is figuring out what he will do in the offseason. Bruce certainly showed in 2008 that he not only can still play at age 36, but that he can still play at a very high level. The question is whether he wants to learn a new offense in which he almost certainly won't be as prolific. Bruce already climbed into second place all-time receiving yards, and he has no realistic chance of catching the leader in that category, Jerry Rice. Still, Bruce is extremely competitive and, perhaps important, was healthy throughout 2008. He has one more year remaining on his contract.

Jason Hill was excellent out of the slot in the second half of the season. Hill is a cerebral player. As he gained confidence, quickness came with it. Hill was particularly adept at making a quick move after catching the ball. He seems perfect for slot, but if Bruce were to leave, Hill or Arnaz Battle probably would move to flanker ... barring any other offseason additions.

Additions, however, are likely. The biggest name on the free-agent market at receiver is Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who fits Scot McCloughan's mold for big, physical, sure-handed wideouts. The question is whether Houshmandzadeh is truly a No. 1 option or a very, very good No. 2. If it's the latter, the 49ers might be better off re-signing Bryant Johnson, who would be a far more inexpensive option than Houshmandzadeh, who will fetch top dollar on the open market. What the 49ers offense needs most is a burner, someone who can stretch the defense so that Frank Gore can run the ball and Davis can catch passes over the middle. Those receivers are rare. The fastest available free agent may be Devery Henderson, who had a 24.8 yards-per-catch average last season but who also has an Ashley Lelie-ishness to him. The best value on the open market may be Pittsburgh's Nate Washington, who caught a career-high 40 passes in 2008.

The 49ers also could look to the draft. Jeremy Maclin, someone who will be in San Francisco's wheelhouse at pick no. 10, is expected to run an eye-popping 40 time later this month at the combine. But he comes from a gimmicky offense at Missouri and would need to hone his route running. The same is true for Percy Harvin. Whichever team drafts Harvin, however, could get good use out of him early as a return man and by having him line up in the backfield like he did at Florida.

-- Matt Barrows

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Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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