Everyone knows the 49ers are looking for a wide receiver who can push Michael Crabtree to the so-called No. 2 position. A star who demands double teams, is at least 6-3, can jump higher than Blake Griffin and has hands made of velcro. That’s going to be a tough proposition, seeing as elite wide receivers aren’t cheap or readily available. The list of free agent wide receivers is much shorter now than before, with Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson, Wes Welker and Stevie Johnson off the market.

While the 49ers will probably attempt to land a potential No. 1 receiver either via free agency or in April’s NFL Draft, they only have three wide receivers under contract: Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Joe Hastings. Even if the 49ers converted Delanie Walker back to wide receiver, they’d still need additional depth.

They also need to secure a punt returner. Kyle Williams is no longer an option. Ted Ginn’s a free agent, and there’s a chance the Niners will bring him back like they’re expected to do with Joshua Morgan (although Jacksonville might give the 49ers some competition for Morgan). However, another option they should explore is signing Eddie Royal.

Royal’s an unrestricted free agent who looked like one of the league’s rising stars as a rookie. That was back when Jay Cutler was throwing passes and Mike Shanahan was Denver’s head coach. Since Shanahan and Cutler were replaced by Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton, Royal has regressed.

After catching 91 passes for 980 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2008 with Cutler, Royal had only 37 receptions for 345 yards and no scores in ’09. After a bit of a comeback in 2010 (59 catches, 627 yards, 3 TD), Royal vanished completely in 2011 with Tim Tebow replacing Orton. Royal only mustered 19 receptions, 155 yards and a TD during the regular season — with only 5 catches and 24 yards receiving in his last seven games.

Royal woke up in the postseason, catching 3 passes for 49 yards (including a 30-yard TD) in Denver’s overtime win over Pittsburgh.

Where Royal has always been consistent is as a punt returner. Last year he only returned 12 punts, but he took one of those back for an 85-yard touchdown against the Raiders and had a 16.2 yard average during the regular season. Quan Cosby handled the return duties for most of the year, but the Broncos released Cosby late in the season and Royal returned to a role he’s handled very well over the past four seasons. Royal’s averaged 11.9 yards per return with 2 touchdowns in his career.

Royal only returned 3 kickoffs in 2011 with a measly 15.7 yard average, but that’s a very small sample size. He’s been serviceable in that area since coming to the NFL, averaging 24.1 yards per return for his career, including returns over 90 yards in each of his first two seasons.

Three Questions

1. With Ginn now thought of as one of the better return specialists in the league and Royal’s production falling off drastically after finishing 7th in the NFL in receptions in his rookie year, who’d cost more?

2. According to Pro Football Weekly, “Royal is well-liked within the Denver locker room and is considered a hard worker.” If the 49ers signed Royal, would Jim Harbaugh be able to make him an above average slot receiver again?

3. Would the 49ers rather buy low on Royal and hope for a resurgence, or go with what they know in Ginn?

The possibility also exists that the Niners could find a speedy receiver or cornerback in the draft to use in the return game. Then again, a team that experienced the nightmare that was Williams’ performance against the New York Giants might prefer someone with experience. With the 49ers’ commitment to special teams, they won’t enter the 2012 season without an established, return man. For that reason, and the fact that both players should be rather inexpensive, there’s a decent chance the 49ers will sign either Ginn or Royal next week.