The 49ers haven’t drafted a starting-caliber wide receiver since taking Michael Crabtree with the 10th overall pick in 2009. That’s one of the reasons they decided to move on from Anquan Boldin. With a veteran like Boldin around, the thinking goes, it would be hard to develop a young, home-grown talent. Here’s a look at the candidates who might fill the considerable shoes left by Boldin, who is headed to the Detroit Lions. During spring practices, the group roughly was divided among right side, left side and slot receivers.
Torrey Smith: The natural heir to Boldin’s role as top receiver, Smith looked better and better as the offense grew sharper this spring. He and Blaine Gabbert definitely seemed to have developed a rapport by June, something they will try to keep going when training camp opens this weekend. It’s worth noting Jeremy Maclin, similar in size and speed, had a career year – 10 touchdowns, 1,318 receiving yards – under new 49ers coach Chip Kelly with the Eagles in 2014.
Jerome Simpson: At 30, he’s the team’s most veteran receiver, and the long-armed leaper always seems to stand out in the offseason and training camp. But he’s never been reliable – mainly because of off-field issues – and the 49ers likely are hoping one of their young players outperforms him in training camp.
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DiAndre Campbell: Several young wideouts showed flashes during the spring. One was Campbell, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent last year and spent the season on the practice squad. At 6-foot-2, 206 pounds, Campbell fits the profile of a Kelly receiver.
Aaron Burbridge, rookie: The 49ers waited until the sixth round to draft a receiver, Burbridge. As you might expect from a rookie who played in a methodical, pro-style offense at Michigan State, it took him time to get up to speed with Kelly’s lightning attack. But Burbridge looked solid during the final minicamp. There has been talk about playing him in the slot, which is where Boldin did a lot of his damage in recent years. Like Boldin, Burbridge (6-1, 208) isn’t particularly big or fast. But his toughness could make him a trusted target just as Boldin was.
DeAndre Smelter: After a de facto redshirt season last year as he recovered from a college ACL injury, Smelter’s 49ers debut this spring was highly anticipated. But he was not full-go as expected after suffering a hamstring injury in the spring. Like every 49ers player, Smelter will be checked by the team’s medical staff Saturday.
Quinton Patton: He’ll get the first shot to start opposite Smith. Patton doesn’t excel in any one area, but he does well at everything – deep routes, catches across the middle, blocking. He had 30 catches and a 13.1-yard average last season, impressive considering the caliber of the quarterback play. But he also had a number of bone-headed mistakes and penalties and could be more mature.
Dres Anderson: He was another one of the relatively unknown receivers who flashed in the spring, especially in June when Colin Kaepernick was throwing to him. He was the 49ers’ most prized undrafted free agent a year ago, but his rookie season was washed out by MCL surgery. Anderson is the son of former Rams great Flipper Anderson, and he put up big numbers at Utah in 2013.
Eric Rogers: As with Smelter, he’s a bit of a mystery man. Rogers has the size (6-3, 210), length and speed for Kelly’s offense, and he put up huge numbers – 1,448 receiving yards, 10 receiving touchdowns – in the CFL last year. Kelly, who once was an unpaid intern in the CFL so he could learn more about the wide-open offenses there, could conclude that having Rogers and Smith on the field at the same time would give opposing safeties fits.
Devon Cajuste, rookie: There was talk about the 49ers converting Cajuste to tight end as they did with Delanie Walker in 2006 and more recently with Derek Carrier. Cajuste (6-4, 227) played receiver in the spring, however. That may be due, in part, to the team’s full house at tight end.
Bruce Ellington: Kelly has been talking up Ellington since February. The small but powerfully built receiver gives Kelly the type of toy he enjoyed at Oregon. Ellington can line up in the slot, go in motion for a handoff or even come out of the backfield. Ellington practiced at times with the running backs last year. He appears to be a major component and is in excellent position to be the 49ers’ breakout player on offense. He just needs to avoid the pesky injuries that have slowed him and kept him out of offensive game plans.
DeAndrew White: He was the team’s most exciting undrafted rookie in training camp and preseason last year and played in four regular-season games, but he was a nonfactor with just two catches. White stood out in 2015 with deep catches. Kelly, however, so far seems to have put his smallest players in the slot – White is 6-0, 193.
Bryce Treggs, rookie: The former Cal player may be the fastest receiver on the team; he ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds in the spring. He’s working as a punt returner as well as a slot receiver.