49ers assistant Wes Welker envisions many receivers fitting in slot role

49ers assistant Wes Welker envisions many receivers fitting in slot role

It took Wes Welker three NFL seasons and a fortuitous trade to become a game-changing prototype.

Welker was an undrafted rookie whom the San Diego Chargers cut after Week 1 of the 2004 regular season. He gained some traction with the Miami Dolphins before his career shot upward with a trade that sent him to New England in 2007.

From there, the 5-foot-9, 185-pound slot receiver became one of the game's most prolific pass-catchers. Welker made five Pro Bowls and recorded 110-or-more receptions five times over the next six seasons with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.

“They were one of the first offenses to use the slot receiver on first and second down, where most offenses were doing it just on third down,” Welker, 38, the 49ers’ first-year wide receivers coach, said on the 49ers Insider Podcast.

“And really being able to take advantage of defenses that would stay in base personnel and basically try to match me up on a linebacker. New England always did a great job of trying to find those matchups.”

The game has changed over the past decade, as teams are not relying solely on a Welker-esque body type to be their slot receiver. Sure, the 49ers have Trent Taylor, who regularly draws comparisons to Welker, but the club also has Jordan Matthews (6-3, 215) running routes from the slot.

“There are certain quarterbacks that like more quick, in-and-out-of-breaks, sitting in the hole, that type of deal,” Welker said. “And some quarterbacks just like bigger targets. There are different ways, depending on what your scheme is and what the quarterback likes.

“And then also a lot of it is just having a smart guy that understands coverages and how to attack it, then using his skill set, whether it’s more bodying guys up and shoulder-punching through, or using quickness and acting like you’re breaking out and breaking in. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to it. You see both sides of it.”

Welker said he has yet to formulate a solid opinion on which style of slot receiver that 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo prefers, but he’s leaning toward the smaller, quicker player.

Welker said the 49ers’ passing game has a lot of flexibility because of the number of players who are capable of lining up in the slot.

“We have a lot of guys who can do it,” Welker said. “With all the formations and the way we move people around, I think it can be a lot of guys. I don’t think it’s just limited to Trent.”

Taylor had 43 receptions as a rookie – the same as tight end George Kittle in 2017 – before struggling with a back condition last season. Welker has been impressed with what he has seen from Taylor during organized team activities on the team's Santa Clara practice field.

“He’s been one of the bright spots in the spring and doing a really good job of winning on those choice routes and really understanding coverage and space and doing a really nice job out there,” Welker said.

Veteran addition Jordan Matthews has been impressive this spring, as he gives the 49ers a different body type out of the slot. Matthews, 26, registered eight touchdown catches in both of his first two seasons before being limited with injuries over the past three years. He signed a one-year contract with the 49ers in the offseason.

[RELATED: How 49ers' revamped D-line can change opposing offenses]

Welker also mentioned Richie James, Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis as returning players who can run routes from the slot. The team also expects to have the option of using rookie Deebo Samuel in the slot.

“The more guys you can have that can play all over the field, and we can formation people up, and do different things, can put the defense in more conflict,” Welker said.

49ers, Raiders picked to be among most improved teams by NFL analyst

49ers, Raiders picked to be among most improved teams by NFL analyst

The 2018 NFL season was one every Bay Area fan would like to forget. Both the 49ers and Raiders ended the season with 4-12 records, securing each a top-five pick in the NFL Draft.

NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah shared his predictions for the most improved organizations in 2019 as far as win totals are concerned, and both the 49ers and Raiders made the cut.

The 49ers top Jeremiah's board with the promise of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo being healthy for training camp and an offseason that saw them shore up an already strong defensive line group, signing Dee Ford to a long-term deal and drafting former Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa in April's draft.

The Raiders, meanwhile, sit third in Jeremiah's rankings after making some of their own splashy moves over the NFL offseason. All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown was acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers and also signed Vontaze Burfict, who was a pro bowler and second-team All-Pro with the Bengals in 2013.

[RELATED: 49ers' Kyle Shanahan ranked as 23rd-best veteran head coach by NFL.com]

It's hard to go anywhere but up for the Bay Area's NFL teams in 2019, but if Jeremiah's picks are accurate, there could be a lot more winning football coming to Northern California in the coming months.

Why Jerry Rice says 'this is the year' for 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo

Why Jerry Rice says 'this is the year' for 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo

Count Jerry Rice among those who believe in the 49ers this season.

The 49ers legend and Hall of Famer thinks Jimmy Garoppolo and Co. can take the leap in 2019.

"I think Jimmy G, man -- we got to keep him up, right and we got to keep him safe and you know it's going to be a supporting cast," Rice told 95.7 The Game recently. "And with wide receivers, I think the most important thing now is to get Deebo signed and also Nick Bosa, signed. We got our kicker, he's all signed, he's ready to go. This guy was perfect last year, I think he was 38-39 and you know we got the pieces of the puzzle." 

"I think this is the year for the San Francisco 49ers."

We've heard it over and over again that the key to the team's success this season is Jimmy G. Before even putting on the red and gold uniform, Garoppolo learned invaluable lessons from Patriots star Tom Brady.  

But as Rice said, the 49ers have the additional tools to make something happen. Young wideout Dante Pettis is sure to make some noise and already has the respect of Garoppolo, and vice versa. Bosa will have all eyes on him and has been making strides in his recent workouts, and one of the league's best kickers, Robbie Gould, is ready to step up and make an impact.

And then there's George Kittle, who will try to build on his historic 2018 season, where he broke Rob Gronkowski's single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.

And they all (hopefully) get an entire season with Jimmy G.

Rice knows the team has what it takes, but even if they don't win it all, a .500 season could have them still in the mix as a successful team.

[RELATED: Garoppolo says Kittle similar to Gronkowski

"If we go 8-8, that's a great season, but I'm sure their expectations are higher than that."