NFL draft season is usually cloaked in secrecy. In many organizations, only those at the very top know exactly which prospects the team plans on targeting when the draft comes around in late April.
That’s by design. Teams guard their secrets to avoid other clubs snatching up their favorite prospects. Plans are often treated like wartime strategies.
But one thing is abundantly clear about the 49ers’ approach to reconstructing their roster in 2019: They’re in the market for receivers, and they’re canvassing many this week at the annual scouting combine.
The team has formally met with Mississippi’s A.J. Brown, South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Georgia’s Riley Ridley and Massachusetts’ Andy Isabella, the players said Friday.
Ridley’s takeaway from his meeting with San Francisco was telling.
“That they’re looking for a receiver,” he said. “I hope that it’ll be me. They’re looking for guys that will get in and turn the system around.”
The need is obvious. The team cut ties with veteran Pierre Garçon last month after coach Kyle Shanahan said late in the 2018 season he’d prefer Marquise Goodwin didn’t have to be counted on as an every-down player. The 49ers finished last in red-zone scoring efficiency and will need to add more talented pass catchers to avoid opponents zeroing in on Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle.
“I want (our receivers) to take it to another level,” said Shanahan, “or I want to bring in people that can get them to take it to another level. Or, I want to bring in people to pass them, and that’s just what you do.”
The free-agent market appears relatively bare, with Golden Tate headlining the group. But rather than overpay for a veteran, San Francisco seems poised to find receivers in the draft, perhaps with their second-round pick, No. 36 overall, after they presumably find a pass rusher in Round 1.
Brown, Ridley, Samuel and Isabella could all fit the bill. Brown and Ridley appear to be fringe first-round prospects, while Samuel and Isabella look poised to go on Day 2. However, impressive showings during on-field testing Saturday could elevate their stock.
Ridley, of course, is the little brother of Calvin Ridley, a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in 2018 who logged 64 catches, 821 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Riley Ridley isn’t entering the NFL with the same expectations as his brother, but his route running and versatility to play outside or in the slot could be enticing to Shanahan, just as it was with 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis.
“Honestly, my brother’s a shifty guy. I got a little more body (than) him. I use my body in the game,” Riley Ridley said. “I go up for contested grabs. Other than that, we’re a little similar. We like to run routes and we critique ourselves on running routes.”
Brown said his favorite NFL receiver to watch is Julio Jones, another Falcons star who had his best season when Shanahan was Atlanta’s offensive coordinator in 2015. Brown could endear himself to Shanahan with his ability to run after the catch, which is crucial in San Francisco’s system. He forced 17 broken tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and dropped just five passes on 90 catchable targets.
Brown played safety in high school and takes pride in his toughness over the middle of the field. His father forced him to play youth football with kids older than he was.
“He instilled hard work in me and the mindset that I have to go get what I want,” Brown said.
Samuel impressed during Senior Bowl week, including during red-zone drills when he showed a knack for creating separation from cornerbacks with his quick feet and ability to change directions (also a staple among Shanahan’s receivers). He played on the South team coached by Shanahan and the 49ers staff.
“Separation is key as a receiver because you don’t always want to catch a contested ball. An easy ball is also a great ball as well,” Samuel said.
A big adjustment for Samuel entering the league will be huddling between every plays and learning the long, complicated play calls. He said all his plays in college were signaled in from the sideline and the offense rarely huddled.
And yes, while Samuel’s first name is Tyshun, the nickname Deebo is based on the bully in the movie “Friday.”
“My dad named me that,” he said of Deebo. “When I was a kid, he said I used to be a bully and take kids toys and stuff from a young age.”
Also at young ages, these receiver prospects were also fond of new 49ers receivers coach Wes Welker, who was officially named to his position earlier this week. Welker has been a key figure in the prospect meetings, and has created some excitement from the 20-somethings looking to break into the pros and replicate his successful career.
“I was kind of star struck at first,” Isabella said, who could end up being the fastest receiver to run at the combine, and had 737 yards after the catch last season, according to Pro Football Focus. “... It was a cool. He’s like, ‘I like your game.’ And I’m like, ‘I like your game!’”
Said Ridley: “I was a Miami Dolphins fan growing up ... and I shook his hand when I walked out, I pointed at him, I’m like … ‘You’re the real deal.’”
Perhaps 49ers fans will be saying the same thing about one of these players next fall.