Aaron Rodgers

49ers WR search: Top 5 from the Pac-12

Jim Harbaugh coached Doug Baldwin and Ryan Whalen, then the 49ers drafted Ronald Johnson. It wasn’t that Harbaugh and Trent Baalke were looking away from the Pac-12, they just drafted the wrong receiver. Johnson was taken in the sixth round by San Francisco out of USC, and released before the season. The Eagles put him on their practice squad, and Johnson was promoted to the active roster at the end of the season.

Seeing as the Niners were messing around with Brett Swain and Joe Hastings at the end of the 2011 season, Johnson would’ve came in handy. Baldwin did more than that, with a very productive year in Seattle. Whalen wasn’t a starter in Cincinnati, but he did manage a few catches at the end of the regular season and a couple receptions in the Bengals’ playoff loss in Houston.

The 2012 NFL Draft class is full of high-profile players from the Pac-12, with four players almost sure to go in the first round (including three from Stanford, which is kind of hard to get used to). However, the Pac-12’s draft-eligible wide receivers are about as well respected as the conference’s men’s basketball programs.

That doesn’t mean the 49ers should steer clear entirely, especially since Harbaugh coached against (or, just coached) every one of these receivers. Great receivers are either drafted in the later rounds or signed as undrafted free agents all the time; here are the top five receivers from the Pac-12.

1. Juron Criner, Arizona (6-2, 220) — 40 time: 4.68  — Vertical jump: 38″

Possession receiver with a knack for catching touchdowns (32 in his career). Rumors of off-the-field concerns have followed Criner, but it’s tough to find anything concrete to substantiate these worries (besides almost missing the 2011 season due to “personal reasons”). Criner has big hands and he was the most consistent receiver in the Pac-12 over the past two seasons. He also performed well in the Senior Bowl.

Projected Round: 3-4

2. Marvin Jones, California (6-2, 199) — 40 time: 4.46 — Vertical jump: 33″

If the 49ers could find a way to kidnap Keenan Allen and start him alongside Michael Crabtree, they’d be set. Jones was kind of forgotten as a result of Allen’s talent on the other side, but he also wasn’t helped by the fact that Cal’s quarterbacks haven’t done anything since Aaron Rodgers left. From his sophomore season through his senior campaign, Jones’ production stayed the same: good, not great. After a great showing in the 40, will a team like the 49ers bank on Jones experiencing a breakthrough as a pro?

Projected Round: 3-7 (opinions on Jones vary wildly, depending on where you look)

3. Gerell Robinson, Arizona State (6-3, 227) — 40 time: 4.53 — Vertical jump: 35.5″

Robinson blew up in 2011 after doing relatively little up to that point. In his senior year Robinson went off for 7 TD and 1,397 yards (more than twice the yardage he amassed from his freshman through junior seasons). NFL teams are going to have to decide if Robinson’s last year was a fluke or if the way he ended his college career bodes well for his future as a pro. It’s hard to think of a WR with more momentum heading into the draft than Robinson, who caught 13 passes for 241 yards and a TD in something called the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas (albeit in a blowout loss to Boise St.).

Projected Round: 5-6

4. Jermaine Kearse, Washington (6-1, 209) — 40 time: 4.58 — Vertical jump: 34″

Kearse probably should’ve entered the draft along with former teammate Jake Locker. After a 2010 where Kearse had 1,005 yards receiving and 12 TD, those total shrunk to 699 yards and 7 TD in 2011 with Keith Price throwing passes. Don’t blame Price, he’s a more accurate and prolific passer than Locker. You could blame the fact that UW had more receiving options, including future pro tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (a 6-6 freshman). Also, Kearse drops a lot of passes (my wife’s a UW alum, so I’ve watched an inordinate amount of Huskies football over the past few years). Buyer beware.

Projected round: 5-6 (although some outlets think he’ll go undrafted)

5. Chris Owusu, Stanford (6-0, 196) — 40 time: 4.36 — Vertical jump: 40.5″

His combine stats were off the charts (besides his carny-like small hands: 8 1/2″), and when healthy he was an explosive player for the Cardinal. Over the past two years, health was the problem. Even worse, Owusu suffered at least three concussions over a 13-month span, and after the most recent one — against Oregon State — many wondered if he’d ever play again. Any team that drafts Owusu will probably do so hoping to recoup as much value as possible for 1-3 years until he’s knocked out for good. As a punt returner and/or deep threat, he could provide some big plays.

Projected round: 5-6

This isn’t the most exciting list in the world, but I’ve seen Jones and Owusu do some pretty exciting things in person. Does that guarantee NFL success? Hardly. Plus, Owusu’s pretty much Jahvid Best in the brain-health department, but nowhere near as good (although he’s almost as fast, at least according to his 40 time). However, if the Niners can somehow grab Jones in the mid-to-late rounds — which would mean Baalke and Harbaugh like him too — expect several far-too-optimistic posts about Jones throughout the rest of 2012 on this website.

Some Pac-12 receivers who might not get drafted but will get a chance to make a team:

Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon (6-5, 209)

James Rodgers, Oregon State (5-7, 184)

Griff Whalen, Stanford (6-0, 187)

Nelson Rosario, UCLA (6-5, 221)

Aaron Pflugrad, Arizona State (5-10, 182)

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