SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Not so long ago, Kendrick Bourne was the little brother in the San Francisco 49ers' wide receiver room. Now, with just three seasons under his belt, Bourne looks around position meetings and is the most accomplished receiver there.
Before pads came on in camp, the Niners watched as second-year star Deebo Samuel, the presumptive No. 1 wideout, suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot. Soon after, they lost Richie James Jr., who has doubled as the team's primary returner, to a broken right wrist. While Samuel could be back as early as Week 1, James is expected to miss games. Just before camp got rolling, Travis Benjamin, who the team signed in free agency this offseason, decided to opt out for the season, citing family concerns related to COVID-19. With camp underway, things haven't gotten much better as Jalen Hurd suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, ending his season before it started.
As if that wasn't enough, rookie first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk, who was in the midst of an impressive camp, is dealing with a left hamstring injury that has him listed as week-to-week, according to coach Kyle Shanahan. All of which has the Niners sorting through a mix of promising young receivers and veteran NFL journeymen as they try to figure out who quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will throw to at the start of the season.
"We don't have any idea who will start at X or Z or F, which is what we call our third receiver," Shanahan said. "Our guys are kind of all over the place. We mix them at each position. It's been a little tough deal with receivers right now."
Just to have enough bodies to get through camp, the Niners have found themselves mining the free-agent market and signing the likes of veterans Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson, but even Nelson is out for 2 to 4 weeks right now with a knee injury. Under normal circumstances, they would be climbing uphill to make the roster but the losses have been so heavy that one of them could steal a spot with another on the practice squad.
Despite all of those challenges, the Niners should have a pretty good idea of what their receiver corps will look like assuming guys like Samuel and Aiyuk return soon. That duo, combined with Bourne and Trent Taylor, should form the top four with the real possibility of Aiyuk and Samuel starting on the outside, Taylor in the slot and Bourne doing a bit of everything.
Aiyuk's early emergence, in particular, is worth watching after he proved advanced beyond his years in the first week and a half of camp despite no offseason.
"Since we've gotten here, just going through these walk-throughs and stuff, you can tell he knows how to practice like a pro," Shanahan said. "You can tell he comes prepared every day. He's not a guy you've had to teach how to act or teach how important it is to learn this stuff. You can tell he understood that before he got here and since we've been around him, you can tell he's been working and that's why he's further ahead, I think, than a lot of rookies would be at this time."
Bourne says he must "step up" and be "the example" in a room full of mostly young and less experienced wideouts. An undrafted rookie out of Eastern Washington, Bourne entered the NFL in 2017 with few outside expectations and was a long shot to make the roster. He scratched his way onto the 49ers' 53-man roster and slowly began earning playing time before carving out a substantial role as one of the team's top three wideouts over the past two seasons.
Losing Sanders, the clear-cut alpha dog in a room full of impressionable youngsters in 2019, was no small thing this offseason. Before his arrival in Week 8 via trade, the 49ers averaged 214.5 passing yards per game (25th in the NFL), 7.92 yards per attempt (10th), 1.17 touchdown passes (tied for 23rd), a 1.17 touchdown to interception ratio (25th) and a 91.1 passer rating (18th). After his arrival, those numbers jumped to 250.5 yards per game (10th), 8.71 yards per attempt (second), 2.1 touchdown passes (tied for fifth), a 3.0 touchdown to interception ratio (12th) and a 109.6 passer rating (fourth) in the regular season.
The quartet of Samuel, Aiyuk, Bourne and Taylor look to replace him, but the 49ers figure to keep two or three more wideouts beyond that with Jennings, Dante Pettis, Austin, Nelson, Shawn Poindexter, Kevin White and River Cracraft battling for those spots. Pettis has bounced back a bit after a disappointing season, Jennings offers the most upside and Austin would seem to have a shot because of his experience as a returner.
Who will win out? Austin said it'll be whoever adapts the quickest in this most unusual of training camps.
"You can't be a dummy and be in this offense," Austin said. "You have got to be smart. You've got to be able to go on the fly. It's definitely challenging. That's one thing I like about it is it's challenging because they make you stay on your toes and you have got to come out here ready to work every day."