John Lynch and Co. have difficult decisions looming over the next 24 hours. The league-mandated roster deadline is set for Saturday at 1 p.m. PT, as all 32 clubs are required to trim rosters down to 53 players.
In addition to wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk expected to make a potential return in advance of the season opener on Sept. 13, the 49ers received encouraging news that receiver and return specialist Richie James would return to the lineup. James was placed on the Non-Football Injury list after suffering a broken wrist during an offseason workout. The injury forced the wideout to miss the entirety of training camp.
While James is one of the 49ers options as a returner on special teams, his return certainly adds depth at the receiver position, especially coming off the heels of yet another receiver being placed on Injured Reserve.
Lynch announced on KNBR that veteran receiver Tavon Austin is headed to Injured Reserve after suffering a knee injury this week. Austin impressed in his short duration at camp and appeared to already have begun building a rapport with the 49ers quarterbacks. He joins Jalen Hurd as another 49ers wideout who could miss the entire season due to injury.
Despite the injuries and opt outs at the position (veteran pass catcher Travis Benjamin, who signed a one-year contract with the 49ers in March, opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns), Lynch feels confident in the talent and depth he has seen over the last several weeks.
"Our depth at wide receiver may be something where early on in the season we're not at full strength, but we like the way the group has come around," Lynch said. "We're probably more comfortable than most people think at the wide receiver position. What we've seen throughout this offseason leaves us really excited about the group."
In addition to Samuel and Aiyuk, the 49ers have several receivers who made encouraging strides through training camp. Trent Taylor makes his return after missing the 2019 campaign with a foot injury. The slot receiver is coming off of a strong performance at camp and has been making a case as one of Jimmy Garoppolo's go-to targets.
Kendrick Bourne, who led 49ers wideouts in receiving touchdowns in 2019, looks to improve off of last year's campaign. According to the general manager, Bourne has developed into a "really dependable" football player entering into his fourth season with the 49ers.
Lynch said Dante Pettis has "answered the bell" in his return from an uninspiring showing in 2019. Pettis has been rebuilding the team's trust through his encouraging showings during training camp.
While Lynch feels comfortable with the talent on hand, that doesn't mean he isn't constantly looking for ways to continue improving the roster. On Wednesday, the New England Patriots released wide receiver Mohamed Sanu after trading a second-round pick for the pass catcher mid-last season.
Sanu has history with the 49ers staff, spending the 2016 season under Kyle Shanahan during his time with the Atlanta Falcons. During that season, Sanu caught just under 73 percent of his targets for 653 yards and four scores. Given the familiarity with the 49ers offense and personnel, pundits have been quick to pin the veteran receiver to Shanahan and San Francisco.
"He's an excellent football player – one that has history with our staff," Lynch continued. "I think when a good football player becomes available, we're always interested and we're always looking to see if they can help."
Despite the potential for added depth amid the recent slew of injuries at wide receiver, the 49ers already have a limited number of roster spots available in a season surrounded by a series of unknowns. While Lynch didn't rule out interest in Sanu, the 49ers are likely to do their due diligence on the receiver. But as it stands, the team appears content with the talent they already have in-house.
"We like our group as it's constituted right now. We're going to have tough decisions as it is at that position. So, I think we feel a little stronger than maybe the outside world believes we should or do."