49ers roster: 4 best candidates for No. 3 wide receiver

Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Richie James #13 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /
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Richie James, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Richie James (13) catches a pass against Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Mark Fields (26) Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers have an open void for their No. 3 wide receiver entering 2021, yet these four players appear to have the best shot.

It was quite odd the San Francisco 49ers elected not to select a wide receiver in the 2021 NFL Draft despite this year’s class being labeled as notably deep at the position and the team having a glaring need after losing four-year veteran Kendrick Bourne to the New England Patriots in free agency.

By breaking an 18-year streak of having selected a wideout in the draft, the Niners essentially opened up a competition to be that third-tier option behind the two starters, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, this season. And while there are a number of eligible names, none are standing out as a clear-cut option just yet.

True, San Francisco could shake things up entirely by trading for disgruntled Atlanta Falcons superstar wide receiver Julio Jones. But the likelihood of that happening seems slim.

Although the 49ers’ recent moves for players like Marqise Lee (now released with an injury designation) and Bennie Fowler suggest head coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t entirely satisfied with the positional depth chart entering OTAs.

For now, however, these four rostered Niners pass-catchers appear to have the best shot at getting that No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

49ers Option No. 4: Richie James

The last three years, there’s been a sound argument Shanahan has needed to integrate wide receiver Richie James into the offense more and not use him primarily as a special teams returner.

Perhaps. After all, James’ 27.5 yards-per-reception average in 2019 would have led the entire NFL had it qualified (it didn’t because it was on a mere six catches), and there was that Thursday Night Football performance against the Green Bay Packers last year in which James set a personal-best nine catches for 184 yards and a touchdown.

Yet that seemed to be more of an anomaly than a sign of things to come. And as NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco pointed out, consistency has to be the name of James’ game going forward:

"His output that night was 50 yards more than the best receiving game of Samuel’s NFL career, and it was 65 yards better than anything Aiyuk produced as a rookie. But, for James, it’s about consistency. And that was the issue throughout his first three years in the NFL. James has appeared in 40 regular-season games. His numbers that night against the Packers account for approximately 25 percent of his career receptions and receiving yards."

James has gone weeks in previous years without making any impact on offense, and the lack of field time aside from special teams could be a sign Shanahan doesn’t quite trust him as an offensive weapon, pointing to a lack of impact during practices.

If James wants to solidify a bigger role in 2021 with the opportunity at hand, he’ll have to show that consistency of which Maiocco spoke.