Ask an NFL coach about one of his position groups and you’re bound to receive an earful of gushing praise.
The 49ers’ inside linebackers are as competitive as any defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has coached. The outside linebackers really do a nice job of setting the edge of the defense, coach Chip Kelly has said. The defensive line has monstrous size while the offensive line is deep and talented.
When it comes to the position of wide receivers, the answers are more diplomatic.
“What we do need to see is consistency,” Kelly said this week. “We haven’t really seen a ton of that right now. We’ve seen them flash, which is awesome because you know what they can do, but it’s being consistent not only on a daily basis but really, on a play-to-play basis, that you can count on them.”
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General manager Trent Baalke had a similar take: “We’ve certainly got to get better,” he said of the group. “And I mean that we’ve got a lot of young guys. And we’ve got to mature at that group. There’s a lot to learn at that position.”
Those young receivers will be in the spotlight Saturday against a Denver defense that last season held opponents to the fewest passing yards of any in the league.
Torrey Smith is sure to start this season for the 49ers on the right side. Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington are the front-runners for the other starting spots.
Beyond those receivers, the 49ers have seven-year veteran Jerome Simpson – he’s been suspended three times by the NFL, including a six-game ban last year – and a lot of unproven players.
The team entered training camp without their leading receiver over the past three seasons, Anquan Boldin, who signed a free-agent contract with the Lions. The 49ers’ hope was that at least one or two of their young players would step forward.
One of the leading contenders, Eric Rogers, was lost for the season with an ACL tear in the first week of camp. Another big-bodied wideout, DeAndre Smelter, hasn’t practiced in a week due to a hamstring strain that also slowed him in the spring. He will not play against the Broncos.
Baalke was asked if Smelter, who spent his rookie season last year recovering from an ACL tear suffered in college, might go on injured reserve.
“We expect him to play this preseason still,” he said. “Not even thinking IR at this point.”
As Kelly noted, the other young players – including undrafted DiAndre Campbell, undrafted former Cal receiver Bryce Treggs and sixth-round pick Aaron Burbridge – tend to have a strong practice one day, then fade away the next. The 49ers drafted a receiver, A.J. Jenkins, in the first round in 2012. Since then, they haven’t drafted one before the fourth round.
Baalke said it was an issue of consistency, not talent.
“Being able to repeat routes so that the quarterback and receiver can get on the same page, making sure that chemistry is right,” he said. “When you’re supposed to run a 10-yard out, you run it. You don’t make it an 11-yard, you don’t make it an 8-yard. You run it.”
Ellington has been perhaps quarterback Blaine Gabbert’s favorite target this summer, and he seems ready for a big season after a series of minor injuries – hamstring strains, ankle sprains – slowed his development over the past two seasons.
Ellington, however, didn’t practice much this week – another ankle sprain – and he is iffy for the Broncos game.
Gabbert noted that Ellington’s absence created more opportunities during the two-day scrimmage with the Broncos for fellow slot receivers Treggs and DeAndrew White.
“The guy that’s really stood out the last couple of days with Bruce being out is DeAndrew White,” Gabbert said. “He’s had to take a lot of reps. Him and Bryce … for guys like that, it’s the experience going against the (Broncos’) ones, the twos – it’s invaluable. The more reps they get, the more comfortable they get in this system, it’s just going to help them in the long run. They’re doing a tremendous job.”