The dyanstic era of San Francisco 49ers history was born out of a red zone play: The Catch, or, as Bill Walsh called it, “change left slot — sprint right option.”
While the Walsh-Montana era rose to Hall of Fame glory after that play in the 1982 NFC title game, the Harbaugh-Kaepernick era faded into a messy oblivion after their red zone woes — a pair of red zone catches that weren’t made, in back-to-back years. First was fourth-and-five in Super Bowl XLVII, when Colin Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree on the back foot with 1:50 left on the clock. Second was a year later, when Crabtree, running a fade in the NFC title game against Richard Sherman’s Legion of Boom in Seattle, saw a pass meant for him get picked by Malcolm Smith.
Since then, the 49ers have lacked a credible receiving threat they can call upon in pivotal red zone situations. Expected to take a pass rusher with the No. 2 overall pick, San Francisco is likely to use at least one of their five other picks on a red zone threat. With a solid stable of receivers and running backs, and their franchise quarterback secured, it’s arguably one of their biggest positions of need.
The team finished No. 15 in red zone touchdown percentage in 2012 and 2013 before falling to an abysmal No. 29 in 2014 and No. 31 in 2015, per teamrankings.com. San Francisco finished No. 2 in that category in 2016, but those results are a bit skewed considering they barely ever made it to the red zone en route to a 2-14 record. Over the past two seasons under Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers ranked No. 27 and dead last, hence why the team reportedly worked hard to acquire Odell Beckham Jr. this winter.
San Francisco needs to bring in an elite option who can high-point the ball and make contested catches in tight corridors. Lucky for them, a few ideal options will be available in NFL Draft, set for April 25-27.
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Stanford
The 6-foot-2, 225-pound receiver is the son of two professional basketball players and has a preternatural ability to box-out corners to make contested catches.
Over his past two seasons, Arcega-Whiteside led all Football Bowl Subdivision players with 40 contested catches, per Pro Football Focus. This past season, Stanford quarterbacks had a 135.6 passer rating when targeting Arcega-Whiteside, compared to an 89.9 rating targeting any other receiver.
His burst in and out of breaks is average and he doesn’t have the elite separation that Shanahan covets, so in deep class of receivers, Arcega-Whiteside was thought to be a third-round prospect. Then he ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at his pro day with both Shanahan and general manager John Lynch in attendance.
The 49ers will almost certainly wait until at least the second round to draft a receiver. And at pick No. 36, Arcega-Whiteside could fit in perfectly.
Hakeem Butler, Iowa State
At 6-foot-5, 227 pounds with the longest arms (35 1/4-inch), longest wingspan and second-largest hands (10 3/4 inches) of any offensive skill position player at the NFL Scouting Combine, Butler is an intriguing option. He was one of a group of receivers who, according to the NFL Network and NBC Sports Bay Area, were slated to visit Santa Clara on Tuesday, including South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Mississippi’s A.J. Brown and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd.
He clocked a 4.48 40-yard dash — fast for his size — and also has great play strength, emphasized by his 18 bench press reps at the combine, a solid achievement given how long his arms are.
Coupling an elite catch radius, deep speed and the ability to bully cornerbacks with strength, Butler consistently shows the ability to rip contested balls away from defenders and break tackles in the secondary to create big plays down field. The one thing holding Butler back is inconsistent hands. Pro Football Focus ranked Butler No. 8 in yards per route run, No. 5 in deep ball passer rating, No. 2 in passer rating from the slot, and a lowly No. 157 in drop rate (16.7%).
If the 49ers think they can turn Butler from a body catcher into a hands catcher, taking a chance on him at No. 36 could pay huge dividends.
David Sills, West Virginia
A perfect candidate for a Day 3 selection, the former quarterback scored 33 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons due to his ball skills, late separation movements and ability to win high-point opportunities.
The 6-foot-3, 211-pounder will likely not be an every down player early in his career due to his lack of strength and propensity to get bogged down by press coverage, but he could flourish in a red zone role for a team with a dire need.
Sills scored a touchdown once every 3.7 catches across his college career and has shown steady improvement as a route runner.
While 49ers fans likely won’t be getting their next Jerry Rice or Terrell Owens in this draft class, there is almost no doubt that the team will select a receiver at some point.