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NFL Preview 2019: Ranking the top five wide receivers in the NFC West

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AP

NFL Preview 2019: Ranking the top five wide receivers in the NFC West

Wide receiver is not a position of strength for the 49ers. 

Although San Francisco arguably boasts the best receiving weapon in the NFC West in tight end George Kittle (1,377 yards, eighth in NFL last season), their wide receivers weren't nearly as productive in 2018. Injuries slowed Dante Pettis, Marquise Goodwin, Pierre Garcon and Trent Taylor, while 23-year-old Kendrick Bourne played his way into a bigger role in the absence of some -- and sometimes most -- of his peers. 

Jimmy Garoppolo's torn ACL didn't help matters, either, but Bourne, Pettis and Goodwin combined for 28 fewer receiving yards than Kittle. Pettis and Goodwin missed four and five games, respectively, but neither's per-game averages would have resulted in more than 650 receiving yards over the course of a 16-game season. 

The 49ers' receiving corps is young and promising, but you won't find any of its members among the five best receivers in the NFC West. Here's a look at the top five ahead of the 2019 season:

Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams

In his first season in LA, Cooks developed strong chemistry with quarterback Jared Goff in Sean McVay's high-octane offense. His 1,204 receiving yards were second-best among NFC wideouts -- only behind teammate Robert Woods. Those 1,204 yards also were a career high.

Cooks primarily is known as a deep threat, but he also was very effective catching screens last season. His wide receiver rating -- or, Goff's quarterback rating when throwing to Cooks -- was second-highest in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Cooks also ranked second in the stat on post and corner routes, and that versatility makes him the most dangerous wide receiver in the division. 

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

Lockett set career highs in just about every area last season, catching more touchdowns (10) in his fourth NFL campaign than the totality of his first three. Few receivers in the league were as explosive as Lockett, as he led qualifying players in receiving yards per target (13.8) and finished fifth in yards per reception (16.9), according to Pro Football Reference.

But what set the 26-year-old apart last season was his surehandedness. He caught 57 of 70 targets (81.4 percent), which was good for 12th in the NFL. Doug Baldwin's retirement unquestionably makes Lockett Seattle's No. 1 receiver, and he could springboard into the league's elite if he maintains his efficiency as he is targeted more often. 

Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams

Kupp's torn ACL in Week 10 marked a clear turning point in the Rams' season. Goff greatly missed his most reliable target from Week 11 onward, averaging nearly three fewer yards per attempt as he threw just 11 touchdowns over the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. 

The 26-year-old Kupp was well on his way to a career season, already having caught 40 receptions for 566 yards alongside six touchdowns. Assuming he returns healthy in 2019, Kupp will open up a lot of options for an already intimidating Rams offense and is close to a sure bet to give LA a third 1,000-yard receiver. 

Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams

The Rams' embarrassment of riches out wide is made clear by the fact their most prolific receiver isn't their best. Like Cooks and Kupp, Woods set plenty of career highs last season, with 86 receptions for 1,219 yards and six touchdowns. 

Woods had never cracked 800 yards in his previous five seasons, but was far more consistent last season. Woods failed to exceed 60 receiving yards in just two games in 2018 after being unable to do so in six during the previous season. He also dropped just two of the 88 catchable passes thrown his way, according to Pro Football Focus, and figures to once again be a reliable option for the reigning NFC champions. 

[RELATED: Ranking top six RBs in NFC West ahead of 2019 season]

Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

Fitzgerald caught the third-fewest passes of his career last year (69) for the fewest yards (734) on the third-fewest targets (112), but the 35-year-old saved some of his best work for the second half of the season. He caught four touchdowns in his last eight games, and had twice as many 50-yard receiving games (four) as he did in his first eight. 

It's clear that Fitzgerald's best years are behind him, and he might not have much left in the tank beyond next season. But he'll provide Kyler Murray a safety valve all over the field, and Murray's talent very well could be enough to give the probable Pro Football Hall of Famer a late-career boost. 

Saints' Sean Payton snaps over failed two-point conversion vs. 49ers

Saints' Sean Payton snaps over failed two-point conversion vs. 49ers

Saints coach Sean Payton wasn't in a mood to be second-guessed following his team's last-minute Week 14 loss to the 49ers.

San Francisco ultimately won the thrilling back-and-forth matchup by two measly points -- a game in which New Orleans attempted two two-point conversions.

Both failed.

After Tre'Quan Smith scored on an 18-yard touchdown pass to give New Orleans a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds remaining, quarterback Drew Brees went back to the same well for the two-point conversion attempt, but the pass intended fell incomplete. On the ensuing possession, 49ers tight end George Kittle caught a 39-yard reception on fourth-and-2, eventually setting up a game-winning Robbie Gould 30-yard field goal as time expired.

But after the tough loss, it was the former two-point try, not the latter, that Payton was questioned about -- while shopping for groceries, no less.

"I certainly understand the fans asking questions," Payton said Thursday on his weekly WWL Radio show. "I got the guy at frickin' Whole Foods asking me about the two-point play. I looked at him, the guy in the meat section, and I said, 'Hey, your steaks don't look too good right now. Worry about your frickin' meat.' "

Oh man. What's the over/under on how many "Worry about your frickin' meat" shirts will be at the Superdome when the Saints host the Colts on Monday night?

The play in question occurred midway through the first quarter, after Saints tight end Jared Cook hauled in his second touchdown reception of the contest. The 49ers were assessed a personal foul on the play, and rather than take the yardage on the kickoff, Payton couldn't pass up being so close to the goal line.

On the two-point try, Brees handed the ball off to a motioning Taysom Hill, who promptly was stuffed by multiple San Francisco defenders well short of the end zone. 

"I didn't feel like kicking a touchback, thought about kicking an onside kick," Payton explained. "So on the 1-yard line, I think we're gonna get two points. And then we get the defense misaligned -- obviously it doesn't have any success. And then the game ends, and, 'Why were you going for two?' Because I wanted to. We were on the 1-yard line."

Misaligned, huh? Payton was correct in stating that the 49ers were in an atypical alignment with two safeties on the same side of the field, but according to San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, that was intentional.

"We knew it was coming," Saleh said Thursday in response to Payton's claim that one of the safeties accidentally lined up on the wrong side. "I’m not going to say he wasn’t on the right side because of the way we execute certain things and all our different goal-line packages that we have, but that play was a gimme one to me with Taysom Hill where he was aligned. That was a layup in my opinion."

[RELATED: 49ers severely battered, bruised with three regular-season games to go]

The tape sure seems to suggest the 49ers knew what was coming:

The Saints hung 46 points on the 49ers, so clearly, not many of Payton's play-calls were of the layup variety. But the first two-point attempt?

You might say he butchered that one.

George Kittle's strong run-blocking skills for 49ers proved by stat

George Kittle's strong run-blocking skills for 49ers proved by stat

"George Kittle, not really a blocker ... "

We didn't say this, but FS1's Doug Gottlieb sure did. And Gottlieb certainly heard the comments from everyone online essentially saying he didn't know what he was talking about.

But if you still need numbers to back up the 49ers tight end's elite blocking skills, Next Gen Stats has you covered: 

Kittle certainly has a presence -- both in the run and the pass game -- and the numbers show that. 

49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has praised Kittle's run-blocking game before, which only adds to the evidence proving sometimes, it's best to watch Kittle continue in his greatness -- no comments necessary.

[RELATED: Kittle was key success in run game vs. Ravens]

To add to it, Gottlieb's comments came after the 49ers' Week 13 20-17 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, one where the tight end received an overall 72.9 grade from Pro Football Focus and a 78.1 run-blocking grade.

That was Kittle's best run-blocking grade of the season to that point.