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In search for receivers, 49ers not caught up on size

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Make no mistake, if San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan saw an opportunity to add a receiver with the unique size and skills of Julio Jones to the roster, he'd jump all over it.

"There's not many of them," Shanahan said. "If there is a Julio available and you have the opportunity to get him, go get him. It's worth it. Whatever that price is, whatever that draft pick is, go get him. There's not too many Julios on this planet."

And because finding players like Jones, whom Shanahan worked with as Atlanta's offensive coordinator, is a difficult task, the 49ers aren't banking on being able to find the next one.

One year after a complete makeover of their wide receiver group, the Niners could still use some weapons for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. That's not to take anything away from the performance of wideouts such as Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor or the forthcoming return of Pierre Garcon. But while Garoppolo and those receivers made it work over the final five games of the season, the obvious need was for a bigger, more physical type who can become a primary red zone target.

While the Niners enjoyed vast improvement in most areas once Garoppolo took over, they often struggled to finish drives with touchdowns after moving inside the opponent's 20. In the 12 weeks before Garoppolo took over, the Niners scored touchdowns on 48.1 percent of their red zone opportunities. Over the final five weeks, they scored touchdowns on 45.8 percent of those chances. In reality, neither number is good enough for a team that figures to have postseason aspirations in 2018.

So, how can the 49ers fix it? Well, getting Garoppolo a full offseason to learn the scheme and develop rapport with his pass-catchers is a good place to start. Some also would suggest spending big money in free agency on a wide receiver or tight end with some size to give Garoppolo a go-to target when the field shrinks.

It's a notion Shanahan doesn't necessarily subscribe to unless the player checks more boxes than simply being tall.

"You don't have to have that to win," Shanahan said. "Where people make mistakes is 'We need a big, tall red zone target like Julio' and then you go pay everyone else in the world who I can promise you isn't like Julio. Now you can't go get a tight end, you can't go get a guard. Yeah, you've got that big guy and stuff, but he's got to be the right guy. There's lots of ways to do it. If he has an elite trait, we'll use it.

"...But if that's the only elite trait is size, you only can put him in on the 5-yard line and throw him a jump ball. And now we have this guy that we only use on the 5-yard line who doesn't help on special teams, can't play on the field and you only dress five receivers, one guy goes down, the fourth guy is your punt returner and now you have a guy who is just a big, slow jump-ball guy who has got to play over the whole field and now you are losing because of it. You don't just go ‘Hey, we need a big guy.' We need good receivers. They come in all shapes and sizes, and whatever the opportunities come, you use it as a coach the best you can."

At the scouting combine last week, Shanahan said his team is searching for starting-caliber players at every position except quarterback and fullback. That would include receiver.

The Niners feel good about the trio of Garcon, Goodwin and Taylor, but wouldn't hesitate to add more if the right player is available. The likes of Jacksonville's Allen Robinson and the Rams' Sammy Watkins have been bandied about in large part because they are bigger than the receivers already on the Niners' roster. But both also bring more to the table than just size. In fact, either would be a strong addition to the Niners and it's expected they will be in the mix for them at the start of free agency. Robinson, in particular, is an intriguing possibility.

Someone such as Taylor Gabriel, who also has ties to Shanahan, could be an option to provide more competition for Taylor in the slot if the price is right.

The need at the position isn't as pressing as it was in 2017, however.

"We had to go get receivers [last year] so if we didn't get the number in free agency, we knew we had to draft one just because we didn't have one," Shanahan said. "We went the route of free agency last year so we could add other places in the draft and avoided receiver until the fifth round with Trent. This year, you don't have to do it, but if the guy is there that will help us ... will a receiver help us more than a D-lineman? That's the stuff you balance out."

And if the Niners don't make a substantial addition in free agency, they could always turn to the draft. Alabama's Calvin Ridley is considered the top prospect among receivers, but players such as SMU's Courtland Sutton, LSU's D.J. Chark and Notre Dame's Equanimeous St. Brown would offer the size the Niners lack with each likely representing different value for where they'll be drafted.

Of course, as Shanahan is quick to point out, the simple act of being tall won't be enough to draw the Niners' attention. After all, Shanahan has a proven track record of being able to scheme pass-catchers open. Those who fit into his plans will get the most attention, regardless of size.

“We don't just pick people to throw to," Shanahan said. "It depends on the coverage and who's drawing the attention. You hope you have the time in the pocket and the quarterback progresses and attacks the weakness in the defense. That's why I really don't worry about the receiver situation. You want guys with special traits and you try to feature them all. You just hope you have the right type of people that understand that."