49ers roster 2021: Austin Watkins should remain a project

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr (7) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Austin Watkins Jr (7) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers added only one rookie wide receiver, Austin Watkins, in 2021. While there are some talents there, he’s probably destined for the practice squad.

The San Francisco 49ers couldn’t address each one of their needs in the 2021 NFL Draft, and one of those needs was to find a quality tertiary wide receiver to make up for the loss of Kendrick Bourne in free agency.

Bourne, a former undrafted free agent, seemingly came out of nowhere. So, it’s not too hard to understand why some think the latest undrafted find, University of Alabama-Birmingham’s Austin Watkins, could be the next hidden gem to crack the regular-season roster and make an impact.

Watkins was the only wideout the Niners grabbed from the rookie pool, signing him to a three-year UDFA deal worth $2.45 million with $105,000 in total guarantees, per Over the Cap.

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Watkins was highly productive over his final two years at UAB.

Austin Watkins Receiving & Rushing Table

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 7/16/2021.

Watkins’ high end could be as a legitimate red-zone threat and quality possession receiver. And while the promise is there, some of the early reports suggested the cousin of current NFL wide receiver Sammy Watkins might need some polish at the pro level before contributing.

Why Austin Watkins latches on with 49ers in 2021

There’s certainly an opportunity for Austin Watkins to make an impact, as San Francisco essentially has four spots to figure out behind its two starting wideouts, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel.

Even though it was primarily against small-school competition, Watkins effectively used his size to fight through contested catches, and his hands are good enough to rip away passes above him.

Just by looking at his frame alone, it’s not hard to see why he could be a potential mismatch nightmare. He might not have above-average speed. But that doesn’t always matter for red-zone threats and possession receivers anyway.

Why Austin Watkins struggles with 49ers in 2021

In some regards, Watkins is not unlike second-year pro wide receiver Jauan Jennings, who also has the strength and physicality but struggled with route-running ability and speed his rookie year, ultimately resulting in a practice squad designation.

According to this scouting report from NFL.com, Watkins is a fairly elementary route-runner, so that could be an obstacle.

And an early report from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn from OTAs didn’t exactly shine a bright light on Watkins’ upside:

"Doesn’t get open. Doesn’t beat anyone. Seems like the guy who will make all the defensive backs look good. It’s early, though. Maybe he’ll improve."

Improving might take time. The last part suggests Watkins could have a similar trajectory as Jennings did a year ago.

Although Jennings is now a top candidate for the 49ers’ No. 3 wide receiving job, so that’s possibly a good sign.

Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster

Watkins is a project. That’s OK to say.

There are upsides. Watkins’ strength and physicality could go a long way, as long as he begins to hone those route-running skills while also demonstrating that key ability to separate against NFL-level competition.

It could take time to do this. Watkins rarely faced pro-level defenses at UAB. And while the level-of-competition argument cuts both ways, it’s fair to point out he’ll have a greater learning curve than many other high-profile rookie wideouts going pro this year.

Read More: 49ers roster predictions: Who’s in, out at wide receiver?

The Niners have 11 other wide receivers vying for three or four spots on the 53-man roster, so it’s safe to say he’s got a long road ahead of him. It’s hard to envision Watkins beating out players like Jennings, Mohamed Sanu or even Trent Sherfield to assume one of those possession-receiver roles.

So, the likeliest of outcomes is for Watkins to spend year one on the practice squad.

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