When the 49ers played their third preseason game two weeks ago, receiver Jeremy Kerley was a member of the Detroit Lions.
Now he’s a 49ers starter. At two spots.
He’s the team’s top option at slot receiver – a feature role in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense – and also will handle punt returns when the Rams visit Levi’s Stadium on Monday. In Detroit, he would have had a hard time seeing the field on offense and wasn’t the Lions’ choice on punt returns.
His standing underscores both how quickly fortunes can change in the NFL and how flimsy the 49ers receiver spot is to start the season. Two of the team’s top four players are recent – very recent – arrivals.
Kerley spent the holiday weekend at 49ers headquarters with Rod Streater, who was obtained in a Saturday trade with the Chiefs, and Chris Harper, a receiver who was added to the practice squad. The trio went through the equivalent of cramming for an exam. After all, the season begins Monday and Kerley and Streater are expected to be in uniform.
Streater, who played four seasons with the Raiders, said he’s been studying Kelly’s playbook at the team facility until 8 or 9 p.m. every night.
“Then I go back to the hotel, and (it’s) back to it,” he said.
Kerley in particular is in position to see a lot of passes. During spring and summer practices, the 49ers’ top slot receiver, Bruce Ellington, was a frequent target of quarterback Blaine Gabbert and seemed poised for a big season. Ellington, however, tore his hamstring while reaching for a punt against Packers and was lost for the year.
One of the backups at slot receiver, rookie Bryce Treggs, unexpectedly was signed to the Eagles’ active roster. A third, DeAndrew White, was waived.
That makes Kerley the only player on the roster who fits Kelly’s ideal mold for a slot receiver: rabbit quick, a fast accelerator and – especially critical this week – mentally sharp.
Kelly noted that Kerley played under Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey last season and that two 49ers assistant coaches, offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins and receivers coach Bob Bicknell, also have worked with Gailey. That gave them confidence Kerley could bridge the gap between Gailey’s and Kelly’s system.
“I think he’s a wily veteran. He’s been around,” Kelly said of Kerley. “I think having Curtis and Bob here has really helped him. But you can tell right away that Jeremy’s a pretty smart football player.”
Kerley’s best season was 2012 when he had 56 catches for 827 yards for the Jets. Last year, however, those numbers dropped to 16 catches and 152 yards. The Jets released him in March and he signed a modest, one-year deal with the Lions later that month.
Streater, who will line up on the outside for the 49ers, took a similar tumble.
He had 60 catches for 888 yards in Oakland in 2013. The next season, however, he broke his foot and was still dealing with the aftereffects when the Raiders’ 2015 season began. With newcomer receivers like Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper on the roster, Streater was pushed aside. He ended last year with one catch for 8 yards and entered free agency.
Now the two castoffs have found solid footing on a San Francisco team that needs them badly.
“I’m hungry,” Streater said. “It’s a new opportunity. I’m ready to prove them right.”