49ers: Jalen Hurd must step up if Emmanuel Sanders departs in free agency

The San Francisco 49ers may be hard pressed to re-sign veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in 2020, meaning second-year pro Jalen Hurd could be a player to watch.

The San Francisco 49ers have three prominent players set to become unrestricted free agents in the 2020 offseason: defensive end Arik Armstead, safety Jimmie Ward and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.

All three of these players were major contributors to the Niners’ Super Bowl LIV run. Unfortunately, it is unlikely the team will be able to keep all of them. They simply do not have the cap room.

Armstead seems to be the primary focus for the team as of now. Early reports indicate he is the leading candidate to receive the franchise tag. A one-year deal is probably best for Armstead and the Niners because, if he performs well in 2020, then he will demand a big-money contract in 2021. But if he disappoints, as he did early in his career, then San Francisco can easily cut ties.

Ward is very similar to Armstead in the fact he didn’t stand out early on in his career but played extremely well in 2019. Ward plays a less valuable position than Armstead, which means he demands less money.

Last season, Ward cost the 49ers $8.5 million against the cap. If they extend him to a similar deal, then he will cost them over two-thirds of the team’s current available cap space; a heavy hit.

This would most likely leave Sanders on the outside, looking in. Unfortunately for him, he is the player who can be replaced the easiest. Receivers Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd are expected to be ready for all of San Francisco’s offseason activities.

Neither played a regular-season snap for the 49ers in 2019 due to injury.

The Niners could also be rewarded a mid-round compensatory draft pick if Sanders signs with another team this offseason. If you don’t think a day-three NFL Draft pick is valuable enough to let Sanders walk, look no further than what the team has been able to do with late rounders like linebacker Dre Greenlaw and tight end George Kittle the past few years.

If Hurd can stay healthy, then he could be the big red-zone target the Niners are in desperate need of. At 6-foot-4 and 230-pounds, Hurd is by far the biggest wideout the team has on the current roster. In his only preseason action, he caught two touchdown passes against the Dallas Cowboys.

Hurd has the athletic ability to be the No. 2 wide receiver next to Deebo Samuel for years to come. He could add a dimension to the 49ers passing attack we have not seen since Kyle Shanahan has taken over as head coach of the team back in 2017.

Most of the wide receivers in Shanahan’s offense are smaller, quick players who get separation and pick up yardage after the catch. Samuel and Sanders succeeded in this role throughout 2019. The problem is that the closer an offense gets to the end zone, the less effective these playmakers can be.

Next: Re-signing Jimmie Ward should be 49ers No. 1 priority in 2020

Hurd has the size and catch radius which make him a lethal weapon inside the 20-yard line. The Niners must have Hurd step up in 2020 if they do indeed lose Sanders in free agency.

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