Consistency is key for James to be 49ers' No. 3 receiver


If the 49ers somehow manage a blockbuster trade for a proven veteran wide receiver, of course, everything will clear up in a hurry.

During the opening week of organized team activities in Santa Clara, the 49ers know their top two receivers are Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel.

After that -- or until Julio Jones magically appears on the practice field -- it’s anybody’s guess.

The 49ers last week signed veteran Marqise Lee, who could have been in the mix to win playing time. But when his bothersome knee began acting up, he was released. (Lee signed an injury waiver that allowed the 49ers to make a clean break if his pre-existing injury became an issue.)

Bennie Fowler, a six-year pro, took Lee’s spot on the 90-man roster. In 68 games over six NFL seasons with the Denver Broncos, New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, Fowler has 97 receptions for 1,101 yards and six touchdowns.

The 49ers have also been in contact with free-agent slot receiver Dede Westbrook, who is returning off a torn ACL, Josina Anderson reported on Monday.

Westbrook played his first four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. He caught 66 passes in back-to-back seasons for 717 yard and five touchdowns (2018) and 660 yards and three touchdowns (2019) before his injury in 2020.

The 49ers opted to turn to the veteran market or those already on the roster to fill out their depth chart at wide receiver.

This was the first time since 2002 the 49ers did not select a wide receiver in the draft. Oddly, it came at a time when there was certainly an opening for a rookie to step in and make an impact.

The 49ers’ lack of action at wide receiver seems to leave the door wide open for Richie James to exceed the production of his previous three NFL seasons.

James showed what he could do last season when Aiyuk, Samuel and Kendrick Bourne were not available for a Thursday night game against the Green Bay Packers.

James had the game of his life with nine receptions for 184 yards. His output that night was 50 yards more than the best receiving game of Samuel’s NFL career, and it was 65 yards better than anything Aiyuk produced as a rookie.

But, for James, it’s about consistency. And that was the issue throughout his first three years in the NFL.

James has appeared in 40 regular-season games. His numbers that night against the Packers account for approximately 25 percent of his career receptions and receiving yards.

The 49ers’ other most-logical options to be the No. 3 receiver are Travis Benjamin and Jalen Hurd.

Benjamin, 31, is a speedster who opted out last season. Hurd is a third-round pick in 2019 who missed his first two seasons due to back and knee injuries.

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The 49ers also signed Mohamed Sanu this offseason, which was a curious move considering his short stint with the team last season.

Sanu joined the 49ers on Sept. 19 on the same day James went on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. The 49ers released Sanu on Oct. 6, three days after Samuel was activated off injured reserve.

Sanu appeared in three games with the 49ers. He caught one pass for 9 yards. He has played with four different teams over the past two seasons. He turns 32 in August.

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