The third wide receiver spot was one of the most intriguing 49ers’ roster battles going into the training camp, but the early portion of camp doesn’t typically afford for a ton of insight on depth chart movement. That changed a little bit Tuesday when the pads came on for the first time.
Our earliest glimpse at the WR3 battle came at the end of OTAs when offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel indicated Mohamed Sanu shined in the voluntary sessions. Sanu earned more praise at the start of camp from head coach Kyle Shanahan and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. He’s at least in the mix if he’s not in the lead.
Early praise for a WR is hardly enough to pencil him into a roster spot though. Tuesday gave rise to two new players in the running with Sanu – 2019 third-round pick Jalen Hurd and free agent signee Trent Sherfield.
Hurd participated in team drills for the first time Tuesday and got through them without any major hiccups according to Shanahan.
“I don’t think he was at the point of contact a bunch, but it was good to get him out there in some live reps,” Shanahan said. “I think he was on the backside a number of times. I think he had a good slant, but I’ll see the film. It was good to just get him out there and get some team reps. And we got through it and keep stacking those days.”
That’s not necessarily a glowing endorsement, but it’s an indication that Hurd is on track to put himself in position to compete for a job that might’ve been his a long time ago had back and knee injuries not stolen his first two NFL seasons. Hurd is a big, talented, versatile athlete who brings a ton of upside if he can stay healthy through camp.
Sherfield was originally signed as a special teams ace, but he’s forcing his way into the conversation for a larger offensive role.
“He had such a good reputation for how he plays on special teams. So that’s a little where it started,” Shanahan said. “But it’s very hard to make our team on special teams if you can’t contribute as a receiver. He’s a guy who we think can play and has a chance to make this seem just as a receiver. And when you throw how good of a special teams player he is, it makes him very hard for guys to beat out.”
It sounds like Sherfield could be a virtual lock to make the roster, but his emergence as a receiver is a little unexpected. In three seasons with the Cardinals he caught only 28 balls for 340 yards and one touchdown while seeing his offensive snaps dip each year.
Shanahan credited special teams coordinator Richard Hightower for vouching for Sherfield as a pass-catcher, but Hightower deflected credit to the front office.
“I can’t take credit for that. (Director of pro personnel) RJ (Gillen) and (general manager) John (Lynch) and their staff, they do a hell of a job with looking at all the offensive tape and all that,” Hightower said. “I don’t watch any of that stuff. So I’m so focused on special teams and what we need to do on special teams, but RJ and those guys that they work with, they watch the tape along with Mike McDaniel and those guys felt comfortable enough to bring him in and let him work as a receiver as well. And he’s here to prove that he can play receiver too.”
Sherfield was on the receiving end of the highlight of camp so far. Trey Lance rolled left and slung a pass to Sherfield in stride 50 yards (give or take five yards depending on the account) for a would-be touchdown.
There’s a long way to go in the preseason and a slew of other receivers on the roster who could shoehorn their way into the conversation, but there’s a race developing and players that don’t make their way into the mix now may fall too far behind to become a factor.