Kelly’s ‘run-first’ 49ers still need a wide receiver

Amid the typical coach-speak and cliches about progress, head coach Chip Kelly made a refreshingly honest remark about the 49ers Sunday night.

During last night’s 30-17 loss, the 49ers’ were unable to shoot their way back into contention down the stretch with a pass-heavy attack, prompting Kelly to deliver this nugget in his post game press conference.

“It turned into a little bit of a rain game both ways. Then when the skies opened up a little bit we were behind and we have to throw it every down. We’re not good enough to throw it every down.”

Kelly clarified and softened his comment a bit during Monday’s press conference by stating the team is built to run the ball, using that as a way to free up receivers with play-action passes instead of being a drop-back type of team.

He also issued an endorsement of third-year running back Carlos Hyde, and said the main problem laid with an offense that often stalls as quickly as they get rolling:

“Carlos [Hyde] is the main focus of what we’re doing offensively. We have a running quarterback that complements him and then our play-action pass complements that and when we’re running the ball successfully and play-action pass off of that, we’re very good as an offensive football team.”

Therein lies the problem with the 49ers’ offense. If you stop Hyde, you stop their entire game plan, as indicated by Hyde’s numbers on the year. Despite missing a couple games with a shoulder injury, Hyde has the 12th-most carries in the NFL, but ranks 20th in yardage, averaging 3.8 yards per carry.

This isn’t a knock on Hyde. He’s struggled to stay healthy since entering the NFL, but overall is a really good running back who has been hindered by the 49ers’ one-dimensional offense.

The problem is that other teams know to stack the box against San Francisco, taking away Kelly’s main source of offense and daring them to throw the ball. Which the team simply cannot do.

If you look at the rushing leaders in the NFL, they all have at least one X-factor on their offense that helps to propel them to success.

Ezekiel Elliot has his offensive line and Dez Bryant. DeMarco Murray has Delanie Walker to open up the middle of the field and Marcus Mariota, who boasts a sneaky-good 100.6 passer rating on the year. David Johnson has Larry Fitzgerald and a receiving corps of varying strength; Melvin Gordon has Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates.

The 49ers have Torrey Smith. The same Torrey Smith who suffered career lows since joining the 49ers, who hasn’t looked like the same deep threat he was in Baltimore, and is on pace for just 27 catches this year.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying the 49ers’ are trying to be a team that they can’t be. And it’s about time they do something to address it.

General manager Trent Baalke has always taken the “best player available,” often erring on the side of defense throughout the last few years.With the 49ers’ likely angling for the second-overall pick in the draft, a few defensive names like pass-rusher Myles Garrett and defensive back Jabrill Peppers have been thrown around.

They’ll certainly be the best players available. And with so many holes on the 49ers’ roster, they’ll certainly be what the team needs. But fixing the defense to make up for a subpar offense is like putting a Band-Aid over something that needs stitches. And something that historically just isn’t working.

The 49ers need to address the wide receiver position this year during the draft. If Kelly wants to stay a run-heavy team, an approach he’s maintained has been the cornerstone of his offense since his days in Philadelphia, a wide receiver is needed to open up the lanes.

There are a few reasons the draft is the place to do this.

The first is that no free agent wide receiver worth any value (and in their right mind) would come to San Francisco at this point. It’s the same reason power hitters shy away from signing with the Giants at AT&T Park; Colin Kaepernick and a stagnant offense are the 49ers’ triples alley.

The second is that the 49ers could trade back a few spots, still being able to select an upper-tier receiver while gaining the oh-so-valuable commodity of more draft picks for a team that is in full-fledged rebuild mode.

And the third, perhaps most importantly, is that it allows Kelly the ability to pick a guy that could start him down the path of truly running his version of an offense. Thus far, Kelly has had to try to paint a masterpiece with the wrong brushes. If Kelly gets the opportunity to select a playmaker tailored to his offense, the 49ers can open up the playbook a bit more.

With so many areas of need, the 49ers will be hard-pressed to choose a player who doesn’t fill a void on their roster in 2017. But San Francisco might be wise to invest this pick on a bonafide receiving threat.

Or, you know, they can always try a fourth-round receiver again.


Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.