Starters: Brandon Lloyd, Cedrick Wilson
Backups: Curtis Conway, Rashaun Woods, Arnaz Battle, Derrick Hamilton
Practice squad: P.J. Fleck
What’s new: How about two new starters and three new backups? This position has undergone an overhaul this season after the departure of 2003 starters Terrell Owens and Tai Streets. Wilson and Lloyd – the Nos. 3 and 4 receivers last year – slide up in the pecking order, though Lloyd has leapfrogged over Wilson as the No. 1 wideout entering the regular season. Conway, a 12th-year veteran, joined the team in May after playing for the New York Jets last season. Woods and Hamilton both were picked up on the first day of the draft in April.
What’s to like: There’s lots of fresh talent here, and the Niners might not be as bad at receiver as some suspect. In fact, they might not be bad at all. Wilson is small and unheralded, but he’s the longest-tenured receiver on the team and he knows how to get open and catches the ball in traffic. He has deceptive speed and toughness and proved to be of legitimate starting quality during the preseason. Lloyd, however, is the emerging star of this unit with ability to make acrobatic catches and stretch and twist his body both in the air and on the ground. He catches everything within his fingertips, is dangerous with the football in his hands and the Niners will try to get it there often this year. Despite missing most of training camp with hamstring problems, Woods displayed late in the preseason that he has the size, smoothness and hands to excel at this level and he could come on quickly now that he’s healthy. Conway is a sure-handed vet who adds savvy and experience and begins the season in the No. 3 role. Battle, who will be used mainly on special teams, makes for a quality fifth receiver.
What’s to wonder about: Wilson and Lloyd lack quality size for a pair of starting NFL receivers, and that will make things tough on the intermediate routes and when they are asked to go across the middle. Opponents will jam Lloyd often, and it’s unproven whether he can get separation from defensive backs on a consistent basis. Woods missed a lot of preparation time this summer, which appeared to be a setback to his development and the expectations he could push for a starting role. But he’s changing that perception quickly now that he’s back on the field. A big question facing the entire unit is if it collectively has the speed to stretch opposing defenses and get open deep, because the Niners would like to look long in their passing game more often this year.
Key preseason stat: Wilson and Lloyd averaged 14.9 yards on their combined 13 receptions, with Lloyd’s two touchdown receptions ranking third among the league leaders.
The bottom line: The Niners have talked openly about being an equal opportunity receiving corps this season now that the me-first Owens no longer is around, but that kind of approach rarely flies for teams with successful passing games. The Niners need two or three receivers to emerge from their clumped group as steady, productive pass-catchers this season, and there is promise on the horizon with some fresh young talent leading the way that figures to only get better. That said, this is the most unproven unit on the team – and perhaps in the league among receivers – and the only way for this group to shake that label is to go out and do it. Entering the regular season, it remains to be seen if they can.