INDIANAPOLIS — The 49ers invested a second-round draft pick on wide receiver Dante Pettis last year.
Pettis enters the offseason as a projected starter after averaging 17.3 yards and catching five touchdowns on 27 receptions.
“He finished the year up strong,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He finished the year up as probably our best guy, and I expect him to come in next season even better. He's a guy that can come in and play all three (receiver) positions.”
Now, the question is who will join Pettis in the starting lineup. The other starter likely is not currently even on the team's roster.
The 49ers have shown zero interest in mercurial veteran Antonio Brown, who it seemed always was in the center of drama or personality issues during his time with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The veteran market does not look enticing. That could mean the 49ers again will use their second-round pick, No. 36 overall, on a wide receiver.
“They are looking for a receiver, and I hope it will be me,” Georgia wide receiver Riley Ridley said after meeting with the 49ers. “They are looking for guys to turn this system around. I want to be a leader. I want to be a sponge, and I want to listen and learn.”
Ridley was among a large group of receivers with whom the 49ers met at the NFL Scouting Combine. They held formal, 15-minute interviews with many — and informal, shorter conversations with everyone else.
Veteran Marquise Goodwin started 24 of the 27 games in which he appeared the past two seasons with the 49ers. The club originally signed him to fill the role that Taylor Gabriel played in Shanahan’s offense with the Atlanta Falcons.
But because the 49ers did not have anyone better, they were forced to play Goodwin a lot — too much, according to Shanahan. The 49ers believe Goodwin’s speed can be better utilized in a specialized role.
Kendrick Bourne finished the season as the 49ers’ top-producing wide receiver, and caught 42 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns. The 49ers want to get better at that spot, too.
The 49ers are looking for a bigger receiver — but not at the expense of speed, quickness, agility and the route-running skills to get open. Shanahan does not believe height is a great attribute for a receiver if he lacks other skills to separate.
There might not be one receiver — or a cluster of them — firmly established as first-round draft picks and game-changers. So each player is trying to distinguish himself in a crowded field.
“Ultimately, it’s my ball skills and the way I play, my mentality, how I go get the ball,” said Kelvin Harmon of North Carolina State. “Those 50-50 balls are normally 90-10 balls my way. And if I don’t catch it, it’s not going to be an interception.”
“Personally, I'm the best receiver in the draft by far,” said Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown, who met with the 49ers on Friday night. “I'm versatile. I can play inside and outside. I run great routes. I have strong hands, and I'm a man after the catch. A lot of guys aren't like that. I'm very different."
Brown’s college teammate, D.K. Metcalf, could be the first wide receiver off the board. He met with the 49ers earlier in the week. He is likely to be selected before the 49ers go on the clock for their second-round pick.
South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel had, in essence, a five-day interview with the 49ers during the Senior Bowl. He got his first brief experience with Shanahan’s playbook and stood out during the week of practices.
“Coming from college there is really not a whole lot of wording, so it was really just getting the wording down at the Senior Bowl and getting a head start on trying an NFL playbook,” Samuel said.
He again met with members of the organization this week, including new receivers coach Wes Welker. The 49ers hired Welker after the Senior Bowl, so Samuel was around him for the first time at the combine.
“He’s the guy who was doing the film, and as I’m about to walk out, I just took a double-take, ‘Oh, that’s Wes Welker,’ ” Samuel said. “I just realized that’s their receivers coach.”
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The thing Samuel remembers most about Welker, a five-time Pro Bowl selection, was the way he would run his option routes from the slot.
“He was unguardable,” Samuel said.
Now, the 49ers are looking for a wide receiver with that kind of ability to join the 53-man roster, not just the coaching staff.