Absence of Owens allowed Wilson to shine in spring
The bigger, better Cedrick Wilson put a lock on the No. 3 receiving position with the 49ers this spring. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be performing that role when the season begins in September. The Niners will be on the lookout for a veteran free-agent receiver between now and then, but if Wilson can continue his strong play once the pads go on this summer, it will be his job to lose come July.
Holdover veteran James Jordan and rookies Brandon Lloyd and Arnaz Battle will have something to say about that once the Niners get back to business at the end of next month. If the Niners don't add a veteran, those three youngsters are the top challengers to Wilson at No. 3. Each of those candidates also will be battling for a roster spot as the Niners figure to keep five receivers this season instead of the four they've kept the last two years.
Each of those latter three have an advantage in size over Wilson, but that's one area in which the third-year veteran has stepped up this spring - he's bigger, too. Now checking in at a robust 186 pounds, the 5-foot-10 Wilson is more of a physical presence now than the smallish figure of his first two NFL seasons.
"After watching Terrell (Owens) and J.J. (Stokes) ... For my size, I knew if I could put on some muscle and get stronger, I'd probably be a much better player," Wilson said. "And I could see it in (spring) minicamps, now I'm stronger and faster and, especially, more knowledgeable."
It's the stronger and faster aspects that have made Wilson a legitimate candidate to take over the No. 3 role - owned marginally by Stokes last season - behind starters Owens and Tai Streets.
"He's always had a tremendous work ethic and a tremendous drive to compete, to better himself, and a real knowledge for the game," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said. "But now he's doing a better job of getting off jams. He's not getting physically muscled at the line as much as he used to be. I think that was part of the problem last season and the season before was that when people got their hands on him, it was too much, it kind of ended his ability to make his play on that potential play. But now he's doing a so much better job at getting off the line of scrimmage, at releasing, at utilizing his quickness, his speed to create separation.
"You can just tell that he's matured quite a bit over the last offseason. He's worked tremendously hard in the weight room, and yet in doing so, it hasn't taken from his overall speed. Which is a very positive thing to see because we need that downfield stretch, and I think he's one of those guys that can potentially stretch the field."
Wilson definitely made an impression at each of the team's four minicamps. Getting more reps than any other receiver besides Streets, Wilson became one of the team's stars of spring. He shined brightly in the void left by Owens, the three-time All-Pro who missed each of the team's three voluntary minicamps after participating in a limited fashion during the first mandatory session.
"Cedrick Wilson looks terrific," 49ers general manager Terry Donahue said. "In practice, I don't know if he could look any better. I would point him out as one of the top performers in minicamps and everything we've done. I would put him in the upper five percent of guys that have shown up and made plays all over the field. He looks great."
Coach Dennis Erickson said Wilson has "without a doubt" established himself as the team's No. 3 receiver behind Owens and Tai Streets.
"Cedrick's really improved," Erickson said. "He's much more polished. He's got great feet, gets out of breaks and catches the ball a lot more consistently. He's going to be a good player in this league."
Said Wilson, "My confidence level is very high right now. I've been sitting on the bench for two years, and I'm kind of sick of it. I want to play. That's my whole focus right now. I want to play right now. And I'm going to do basically everything I can to get on the football field this season."
The extensive work this spring not only gave Wilson a chance to shine, but also an opportunity to prepare for when Owens is back on the field - and Wilson will be responsible for taking some pressure off the team's top offensive threat.
"Terrell is going to get double(-teamed)," Wilson said. "I know that and Tai knows it. He is going to get doubled. If (opponents) single Tai and myself, we've got to win that battle. That's my goal. When we need somebody to count on, I want to be the guy that they can call on to get it done."
The Niners still have their eyes out for a more experienced, established veteran who they might call upon to get it done. But Wilson has made such an impression on Donahue this spring that the general manager said he would feel comfortable entering the season with Wilson as the team's third receiving option.
"If we bring in another wide receiver, the guy's got to beat out Cedrick Wilson," Donahue said. "And that won't be easy. There's no question he's stronger and knows his stuff now. He has grown and developed and learned how to play. He's a player now."