SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Has it really been 25 years since the 49ers produced a pair of 1,000-yard receivers? Yes.
An even crazier question: Could they actually have a trio hit 1K this season, for the first time in 49ers’ history?
It’s possible, even if it initially sounds preposterous for a run-driven offense, and even more so for a franchise unsure which quarterback will be throwing those yards.
Could be Brock Purdy after his career-saving elbow repair, or the unamortized Trey Lance with 102 passes through two seasons, or third-team’s-a-charm Sam Darnold with a 78.2 career passer rating.
Alas, consider the 49ers’ Fab Four targets, each with a 1,000-yard season already to their credit:
— Brandon Aiyuk, who crested the 1,000-yard mark last season, tallying a team-high 1,015 in 17 starts with career highs of 78 catches and eight touchdowns in Year 3 for him.
— Deebo Samuel, who powered past defenses for 1,405 yards in 2021, only to register 632 last season while missing four games.
— George Kittle, who enjoyed back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018-19, had 910 in 2021, and, in closing last season, projected to a near-1K pace with Purdy in the starting role.
— Christian McCaffrey, who paired 1,005 receiving yards with 1,387 rushing yards in 2019 for Carolina, joining Roger Craig (49ers, 1985) and Marshall Faulk (Rams, 1999) in that NFL 1K/1K club. McCaffrey had 464 receiving yards in 11 regular-season games upon his trade from Carolina last year.
If any coach can craft yards-after-the-catch lanes for multiple 1,000-yard receivers, this ought to be Kyle Shanahan’s year to do that, especially if Purdy picks up where his healthy elbow left off last season. Last week, Shanahan said Purdy even could come back “a hell of a lot better,” from not only his internal-brace ligament repair but his film-study habits.
Combine Purdy’s passing totals from his eight wins – prior to the elbow injury in the NFC Championship Game loss at Philadelphia – and that pace equated to a 3,940-yard season. His only 300-yard game last season came in the playoff-opening comeback over Seattle.
If Purdy isn’t spreading the wealth – he’s just over two months into a six-month recovery — then it’ll be Lance or Darnold, who’ll be at the offensive controls when organized team activities open Monday.
Wait, isn’t this a story about receivers’ potential? Ah, yes, so let’s run a curl route back to them.
First, survey the NFL landscape. Five teams had a pair of 1,000-yard receivers last season: the Miami Dolphins (Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle), the Philadelphia Eagles (A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith), the Tampa Bay Bucs (Mike Evans, Chris Godwin), the Seattle Seahwaks (D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett), and, the Cincinnati Bengals (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins).
Only five teams in NFL history have had three receivers reach 1,000 yards in the same season: the 1980 San Diego Chargers, the 1985 Washington, the 1995 Atlanta Falcons, the 2004 Indianapolis Colts, and, the 2008 Arizona Cardinals.
Deebo and Aiyuk, by virtue of their job title as starting wide receivers, will draw the most targets and garner the best chance at reaching 1,000 yards together. Their long-term futures are in question with the 49ers simply on a contractual basis: Samuel’s extension runs through 2025, with his salary escalating to $21 million in 2024 and $16.6 million in ’25; Aiyuk’s fifth-year option is exercised for 2024 at $14 million.
“We’re trying to do something special this year and Brandon is going to be a big part of that and beyond as well,” general manager John Lynch said last month. “Yes, you always have to think out a few years, but we’re really excited about Brandon. I feel like he made another big step last year, and I think the best is yet to come.”
The last 49ers’ 1K duo came in 1998: Pro Football Hall of Famers Jerry Rice (1,157) and Terrell Owens (1,097).
Of the 31 times a 49ers’ receiver has hit the 1,000-yard mark, Rice accounts for 12 such seasons.
Only two other seasons have the 49ers enjoyed a pair of 1K receivers, those coming in 1989 and ’91 by Rice and John Taylor.
Rice and Taylor merged again last week, when they appeared at the Dwight Clark Legacy Series event in San Jose, a fundraiser benefitting the Golden Heart Fund for 49ers’ alumni. Rice and Taylor had the audience laughing at jokes but also regaling in the 49ers’ dynasty days.
“You made life easier for me,” Rice said in all sincerity to Taylor.
Rice became the NFL’s most prolific receiver while playing the first 16 years of his 20-year career with the 49ers (1985-2000). Taylor toiled mostly in his shadow from 1987-95, though he certainly shined when it counted, with a Super Bowl-winning, last-minute touchdown catch for the 1988 49ers against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Rice had 215 yards on 11 catches in that Super Bowl; Taylor had 10 yards, on one iconic catch.
“One catch. I always told people I didn’t care about stats,” Taylor said last week. “My main concern was: as long as we get the ‘W’. That’s all I cared about, was winning.
“I didn’t care about individual stats,” Taylor added. “People always said to me, ‘If you’d of went to another team, you could have been the star of that team.’ But why? I was happy with where I was at. We were winning Super Bowls, and that’s what it was all about.”
The 49ers haven’t won a Super Bowl since the 1994 season. If they’re to end that drought Feb. 11 in Las Vegas, it’ll take more unselfish play, from players who don’t care about stats, or 1K milestones.
“Back in the day, this guy right here, one on one, you could not check him,” Rice said of Taylor. “He was going to score. He was going to punish you. That enabled me to get free, because of John Taylor and Brent Jones and … It was all about teamwork.”
Added Taylor: “My feeling was like this: If I’ve got to throw that block for Jerry to score, that’s part of my job. He’s going to score.”
Rice, on cue, noted how he blocked downfield for Taylor on his touchdown receptions of 92 and 95 yards in an epic performance, at the Los Angeles Rams on “Monday Night Football” on Dec. 11, 1989.
Sharing the stage with Rice and Taylor last Wednesday night was McCaffrey, who echoed what they said.
“This is the biggest team game in the world that gets so much individual attention,” McCaffrey said. “You’ve got guys named the GOAT, and this and that. It’s true and it’s great. But no one is anybody without their teammates in this game. … Everybody is extremely excited to get rolling.”