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Undrafted Receivers Seek to Shine

Posted Aug 17, 2012

For the hundreds of players who don’t hear their name called at the NFL Draft, a new goal comes into view. That ambition is to sign with a team as a free agent.

Mention the term “undrafted wide receiver” in any NFL conversation and names like Wes Welker and Victor Cruz are likely to come up. Both have become elite pro receivers after entering the league with the title “undrafted free agent.”

As part of the scramble that ensued during the hours, days and weeks after the conclusion of the NFL Draft this past spring, three undrafted receivers signed with the 49ers as rookie free agents.

Chris Owusu, Nathan Palmer and Brian Tyms all without a doubt aspire to reach Welker or Cruz’s level, but before any of them can realistically entertain such thoughts, each must struggle to make it through his first NFL training camp.

The reality of that struggle is not lost on Palmer, who is listed fifth on the depth chart going into Saturday’s preseason game at the Houston Texans. The 5-foot-11, 195 pound rookie takes a simple-but-effective mindset into each day.

“I am just trying to make sure I know what I am supposed to do once I get out there,” Palmer said. “It’s pretty much about taking advantage of my opportunities once I am on the field.”

Training Camp Battles

For a team coming off an NFC Championship game appearance and looking to reach the Super Bowl in year two under Jim Harbaugh, fan attention often misses some of the most drama training camps offer, the battles to make the team.

Each of the 49ers three undrafted receivers has impressed on the field at some point thus far since joining the team.

Owusu, Palmer and Tyms are all talented youngsters, but it takes a lot more than just ability to impress those who spend time around the 49ers.

The defending NFC West Champions’ offseason acquisitions included future Hall-of-Famer Randy Moss and last season’s Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, The two veterans bolster a wide receiver corps led by a former first-round pick in Michael Crabtree, a fourth-year player coming off a career year

Playing off Each Other

Like with any new experience, the 49ers rookies are attempting to get through camp by relying on one another.

“The thing I like about Chris and Brian is we came in here understanding that it doesn’t matter if you got drafted or not,” Palmer said. “We said let’s just be as hungry as we can and come out here and show we can compete with these guys. We have a friendly competition.”

For Palmer, the grind of trying to get through camp has been somewhat alleviated by the rookies working together to improve.

“We are all pretty close,” Palmer added. “We all have fun so it’s a pretty good relationship. It’s a battle as rookies coming in. We all stick together to try and help each other study film and be ready for meetings. It’s all to make sure each of us knows what we are doing once we get out there.”

Owusu brings a lot of knowledge to the team in the first place considering he played under Harbaugh for three of his four years at Stanford.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound speedster has arguably had an easier adjustment to the NFL when considering he played in Greg Roman’s offensive scheme in college.

“I can’t ask for a much better team than the 49ers to transition from college to the NFL,” Owusu said. “I have wanted to play in the NFL ever since I first touched the football. It was a dream come true for me.”

Measuring Up

Pre-draft conversations often cite “measurable factors” as key components that go into determining incoming rookies’ draft position.

For those outside the 253 draft selections this year, something prevented them from being picked and one of the first places to look could be “measurables.”

While Owusu was the only player of the three rookies to participate in the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, all of their performances at their respective College Pro Days were respectable to say the least.

Tyms, who played only one year of high school football, and just two years in college at Florida A&M posted impressive numbers.

His vertical jump was measured at 38.5-inches, a number that would have tied for fifth place for a wide receiver at the combine. His 40-yard-dash time of 4.40 would have been third-best.

Palmer also showed sub-4.40 speed and an impressive 37-inch vertical leap, factors which likely helped him turn the heads of 49ers scouts who may otherwise have overlooked the Northern Illinois product.

Owusu’s 40-yard-dash time of 4.36 tied for the fastest time by any receiver at the combine. The multiple concussions Owusu suffered in college were more likely what hampered his draft status. A clean bill of health has given Owusu the green light to get after it in training camp.

Getting Noticed

Playing on a team with such a talented group of pass catchers can make it difficult for a rookie to make an impression, but each member of San Francisco’s undrafted rookie receiver trio has found a way to stand out at 49ers Training Camp.

The depth of talent on NFL teams, especially one coming off a 13-3 season, can make it difficult to impress coaches.

“All these guys are good,” the 49ers head coach said. “That’s the thing about pro football, you chuckle about it, but there are no bad players that are here. These guys are all good. It plays out. You’re looking for better, for best. Those things unfold on the practice field.”

All three receivers have shown flashes of the ability to be “best” during training camp, so the question each will have to answer as camp progresses is, how long they can sustain their quality play?

To his credit, Palmer has recovered from a drop on a nice pass from Scott Tolzien in the team’s first preseason game. He caught a touchdown in the back right corner of the end zone from Josh Johnson playing with the scout team during Thursday’s practice.

Harbaugh was complementary of Palmer earlier in camp when he explained why the team decided to sign the player.

“We saw a good football player,” Harbaugh said. “He’s done a good job here learning the system.”

Owusu has made some big catches in his playing time this camp. He caught three balls for 35 yards with a long reception of 18 yards to lead all receivers in the team’s first preseason game.

Tyms has impressed especially of late during red zone periods. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder caught two touchdowns from Johnson and Tolzien, respectively on Thursday.

Each player has shown the talent that got them to this point, but to really get to where they want to be they will have to find a way to distinguish themselves.

For that reason, it’s not hard to see why Palmer, Owusu and Tyms are often found taking additional reps catching footballs from the jugs machine following training camp practices.

Rookie Responsibilities

While getting in a little extra practice time may seem typical for NFL players, Owusu, Palmer and Tyms’ extra time on the field is more impressive when considering the additional workload rookies face at training camp.

On top of adjusting to all the things that go into being a professional football player like learning a new playbook, adjusting to the faster speed of the NFL game, and going through multiple practices, meetings and workouts, 49ers rookies have to pay their dues.

Watch players walk up and down the path known as “Forty Niner Way” to get to and from practice and you will notice 49ers rookies at every position carrying the pads of at least one veteran. Rookie wideouts are no exception.

The likes of Owusu, Palmer and Tyms have been spotted carrying veterans’ pads and have also had to pick up a few dinner checks. For all the grief though, they relish the opportunity to spend time with their veteran receiver teammates.

“I think you have a lot of successful veterans to look up to like Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree,” Owusu said. “It is just a pleasure to be on a team with those guys. You have got to take everything from them just because they have been there. You want to be where they have gone to. You want to emulate everything you can from them.”

Tyms has learned from his more experienced teammates by following their lead. He tries to emulate the way receivers like Moss and Crabtree try to play toward their strengths.

The 49ers rookies have also paid homage to their elder receivers by taking the responsibility of keeping the position meeting room stocked with snacks.

Reaching the Goal

All three rookies have had a camp worthy of making an NFL team, but there are only 53 spots on the active roster.

When asked what he was looking forward to most about the rest of training camp, Tyms summed up just how far he was willing to go.

“I will do whatever it takes to make plays,” Tyms said. “Whether it’s having to jump over a guy to make a catch or working hard to get down field to make a block, I will do what it takes to make this team.”

The fact that all three receivers share that point of view is a big part of why they all have been so impressive at this year’s camp and all will challenge to make the team.

Harbaugh has certainly noticed, having said this is the best group of young receivers he has been around.

There is no doubt that San Francisco’s undrafted rookie wide receivers have provided the team with a wealth of talent. For each of them it has been a long road, but with three preseason games to go before the regular season gets underway, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is training camp.

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