49ers receivers: Are drops going to be a problem in 2021?
By Peter Panacy
One of the more troubling themes from the 49ers 2021 preseason was the number of drops by receivers, prompting questions if this will continue as a problem.
While there were plenty of things to be excited about during the San Francisco 49ers‘ 2021 preseason campaign, one of the worrisome developments was the sheer number of drops by the Niners’ crop of wide receivers.
The big stat, of course, was rookie quarterback Trey Lance watching nine of his would-be completions dropped by his receiving targets. That number led the league among rookie quarterbacks, and it ultimately affected Lance’s 46.3 completion percentage.
So, is this going to be a negative trend once the regular season rolls around?
Hopefully not, but it’s something to monitor.
Can 49ers drops be blamed on Trey Lance’s fastball?
An easy assumption, and one with some modest truth, is Lance’s notably fast velocity on his passes is something San Francisco’s receivers haven’t been used to in recent seasons.
Quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens, who saw the bulk of snaps the last three years, aren’t exactly known for delivering high-velocity passes. To use the baseball analogy, they were delivering regular change-ups and offspeed stuff.
Garoppolo seems likely to start the regular season, so that’ll be a constant. Yet it doesn’t entirely explain away why there should be concern about Lance’s velocity.
True, there might be a need for some touch on the part of the rookie quarterback. Finesse can be just as important as getting a ball through a small window quickly. Yet if Lance’s collegiate receivers at North Dakota State were able to haul in 66.9 percent of his passes in 2019, pro-level pass-catchers shouldn’t be having any sort of problems whatsoever.
Evaluating drop numbers from 49ers receivers
Two of those nine drops on Lance’s passes were attributed to now-on-injured-reserve wide receiver Richie James, and he was dealing with plenty of drops during training camp practices, too.
With James out of the picture, the issue might be a little less pressing. But it doesn’t go away entirely.
Two other wide receivers who did make the 53-man roster, Brandon Aiyuk and Jalen Hurd, were also credited with two dropped passes apiece, the three players in total accounting for two-thirds of Lance’s would-be receptions that were dropped.
A year ago, Pro Football Focus credited Aiyuk with five dropped passes on 93 targets, which isn’t a terrible number but one that could potentially be a slight issue this season.
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Fellow starting receiver Deebo Samuel, meanwhile, could potentially be more of a concern. Over just seven games played last season, Samuel had three drops attributed to him, and his rookie 2019 campaign saw nine drops for a drop percentage of 11.1.
To put things into perspective, Samuel’s 2019 drop percentage was tied for fourth most among qualifiers. It’s not a good category to rank high in.
So, there might be an argument in favor of worrying about drops from 49ers pass-catchers this season, especially as they adjust from someone like Garoppolo to Lance and the different kind of velocity they’ll face.
But based on the numbers before Lance was in the picture, it might have been something of a problem anyway.