Slot receivers, on the other hand, have rarely taken on starring roles in Shanahan’s decade of running NFL offenses.
Might that change in San Francisco with fifth-round rookie Trent Taylor coming off a surprisingly strong showing in OTAs and minicamp?
Taylor’s offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, Tony Franklin, believes the 49ers nabbed the steal of the draft in an ultra-productive player who led the nation with 1,803 receiving yards last season, finishing his college career ranked fifth in Division I history with 327 receptions.
“A lot of times you hear people say, ‘This guy is the next Wes Welker,'” Franklin told Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Every small, white kid’s been Wes Welker since Wes Welker became a star. I’m telling you, Trent Taylor really is.”
Perhaps the greatest slot receiver of all time, Welker averaged 112 catches over a six-season span with the Patriots. If Taylor’s ceiling is that high, why was he still available with the 177th pick in the draft?
It comes down to measurables. As Branch points out, Taylor was near the bottom of the list among 53 wide receivers at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine in height (5-foot-8), weight (181 pounds), hand size (8¼ inches), arm length (28¾ inches) and speed (4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash).
Welker’s measurables ranked near the bottom of the 2004 draft class as well. In fact, he went undrafted and was waived by the Chargers before he emerged as a starter in Miami, New England and Denver.
It would be wrongheaded, though, to portray Welker or Taylor as unathletic. In addition to his football success, Taylor was an all-state point guard in high school. When he dabbled in tennis as a senior, he made it all the way to the state finals in doubles.
Taylor will never beat NFL cornerbacks on the outside, but Shanahan believes the rookie’s skill set is custom-made for success in confined spaces.
“I thought he was as good at the slot role as anyone that we were looking at in the draft,” Shanahan explained in late April. “He really owned that spot. He was very quick. His body’s always under him. He can make cuts.
“I thought what impressed me the most about him besides the separation ability is that when he did get the ball in his hands, he ran angry and pissed off. He got up the field. He’s not scared to get hit. He’s a very competitive, violent runner and those are the guys to me who keep you on the field and move the chains.”
Shanahan’s description reads like a Welker scouting report from a decade ago. The premier inside route runner of his generation, Welker consistently beat single coverage with elite short-area quickness while reading defensive keys on the same wavelength as his quarterbacks. The gridiron safety blanket was exactly where he was supposed to be when the internal clock of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning struck zero.
Taylor has the same gift for changing direction without losing speed, boasting the fastest time in the combine’s three-cone drill (6.74) and the third-fastest 20-yard short shuttle (4.01).
Time will tell if Taylor truly has the potential to become a Welker clone, much less the next Cole Beasley or Danny Amendola. If he’s pushing veteran Jeremy Kerley for playing time by the end of his rookie season, it will be fair for 49ers fans to imagine the possibilities.