How SF 49ers can make their pass-catching corps elite in 2021

The SF 49ers haven’t been able to fully deploy their receiving corps this season, mainly due to injury. But that’ll be different in 2021.

The SF 49ers could end up having one of the most potent pass-catching corps in the NFL in 2021.

Granted, it would be nice if the full crop of players expected to be there next season stays healthy, which is something the NFL gods haven’t blessed the Niners with in 2020. But assuming the assembled group avoids the injury bug, fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the prospects for a truly elite-level group of receivers.

Here’s what we know: San Francisco has three players it should fully implement as the top pass-catching weapons in 2021, tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk.

One can scratch Kittle and Samuel’s 2020 campaigns from the books, essentially, as both have been banged up with injuries. But Kittle, a record-setting 2019 first-team All-Pro, needs little introduction to the ranks of elite. Samuel, whose 961 all-purpose yards his rookie season eclipsed those of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s 953 set back in 1985, needs little introduction either.

The X-factor this year, of course, has been Aiyuk.

The SF 49ers’ second of two first-round NFL Draft picks this year has already accumulated 446 yards and a team-high three receiving touchdowns. While it’s debatable, one could argue he’s the best wide receiver on the team over Samuel.

Either way, it’s a bonus for head coach Kyle Shanahan.

But with some of the uncertainties facing Shanahan and the 2021 Niners’ quarterbacking situation, putting together a truly elite-level crop of pass-catchers next year would go a long way in ensuring the offense doesn’t just miss a beat, rather it finds a way to improve.

Here are some key ways how San Francisco makes it happen.

 

SF 49ers: Moves to bolster 2021 wide receiver corps

There’s one simple move the Niners can make next season without having to do essentially anything: let slot wide receiver Trent Taylor walk in free agency and push fellow wideout Richie James, who capitalized on a shorthanded wide receiver room in Week 9 against the Green Bay Packers with a career-best 184-yard game, into a more prominent role.

James has speed and playmaking abilities, far above those of Taylor. For whatever the reasons, Shanahan hasn’t put James’ traits regularly to use.

It’s unclear whether or not San Francisco will re-sign wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, an unrestricted free agent in 2021. A reliable possession-type receiver, Bourne has his upsides. But cap restraints may force the SF 49ers to part ways.

Good thing the 2021 NFL Draft is awfully deep at wide receiver, arguably deeper than the impressive cast of wideouts from this year’s draft, which included Aiyuk.

Shanahan and the Niners probably won’t use another first- or second-round pick on a receiver as they did with Samuel and Aiyuk in 2019 and 2020, respectively. But the good news is there are plenty of promising receivers likely to go on day three of the draft.

If San Francisco wants to land a gem of a receiver to replace Bourne, going after someone like North Carolina’s Dazz Newsome or UAB’s Austin Watkins on day three would be a wise move.

 

SF 49ers: Moves to bolster tight end crop in 2021

Kittle should return healthy and ready to go in 2021. But the last offseason showed the SF 49ers weren’t entirely happy with the depth behind him.

As a result, the team inked veteran tight end Jordan Reed to a low-cost, low-risk one-year deal.

Despite his injury history, which has carried over into this season and limited him to five out of 10 games this season. Yet he’s made an impact in those games, accumulating 150 receiving yards and two touchdowns, which will likely grow higher with Kittle out indefinitely.

Reed, 30 years old, probably won’t ask for a high-level deal in 2021 and could be a cheap re-sign option for Shanahan and Co., finally giving the head coach a much sought-after one-two punch of Kittle and Reed, which wasn’t ever fully deployed at length this season.

Remember, few teams are defensively equipped adequately enough to handle two legitimate pass-catching threats at tight end.

It would also be prudent to extend a qualifying offer for No. 3 tight end Ross Dwelley, who’ll be a restricted free agent next season. Dwelley, nowhere near as prolific as Kittle or Reed, has shown the knack for being a timely and reliable commodity.

Depth is just as useful as elite starters. If anything, 2020 proved that point.

The best part about these moves is they’re not difficult. Kittle, Aiyuk, Samuel and James are all on the roster for next season. Bringing Reed and Dwelley back isn’t much of a challenge either, and the Niners own six picks on day three of the NFL Draft.

All these signs point to San Francisco’s pass-catching corps getting better next season. And that’s a bonus.