49ers drafted Ricky Pearsall with eye toward future

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Wednesday, May 15, 2024

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Heading into last offseason, then-Florida receiver Ricky Pearsall was curious how NFL teams viewed his draft prospects.

So, with the help of Gators coach Billy Napier, Pearsall sought feedback from the league's College Advisory Committee before deciding whether to declare for the 2023 draft. What Pearsall heard, according to Napier, is that he needed to add strength and size and if he were to enter last year's draft, his ceiling was around the fourth round.

It wasn't what Pearsall wanted to hear. But perhaps it was what he needed to hear.

"Play strength was one of the things that was mentioned by a few of the general managers and scouts that we had conversations with," Napier said. "And I think he took that personal."

Pearsall took it personal enough to add roughly 15 pounds of muscle over his final two years in college. And at February's NFL scouting combine, when only 12 of the nearly 40 receivers participated in the 225-pound bench press, he knocked out 17 reps (ranking sixth) despite weighing in at only 191 pounds.

The added strength was only a piece to a puzzle that was mostly filled in, as Pearsall boasted plenty of speed and route-running ability that showed up on tape. The complete picture was enough for the San Francisco 49ers to select Pearsall with the No. 31 overall pick in April's NFL draft.

To many, the Pearsall pick was viewed as a bit of a reach and left some scratching their heads figuring out why a team that already employs Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings would use its first opening-round pick in three years on a wideout.

Closer inspection should wipe away many of those questions. Pearsall's fit may differ in the short- and long-term, but neither is difficult to understand.

"He just plays the position really well," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "Whether he was outside, inside, either receiver, all three of the positions, he can separate down the field, he can separate underneath. He's got really good hands, extremely smart, very well-developed ...

"I guess I'd call it a gym rat or something because you can just see he's worked on his routes, put in a lot of hours because you can see it on tape, and there's really nothing he can't do. He can fit in whatever role based off the other guys."

Which is why, despite drafting Pearsall so early, the Niners never felt compelled to take a penny-on-the-dollar offer for either Aiyuk or Samuel during the draft. In fact, the 49ers viewed receiver as one of their biggest needs because of how the future looks at the position.

While the Niners are working to sign Aiyuk to a lucrative long-term extension, he is not under contract beyond the 2024 season. The same is true for Jennings. And if they choose, the Niners can get out from under Samuel's deal next offseason with a potential for $9.1 million in salary cap savings.

Still, Aiyuk, Samuel and Jennings are expected to remain on the roster for 2024. If that's the case, there might not be many offensive snaps for Pearsall. That's especially true considering the Niners used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) on only 38.8% of snaps in 2023, the second-lowest percentage in the NFL and well below the league average of 62.1%.

What's more, the Niners ran zero plays in which they had four or five wideouts on the field during the 2023 regular season, per NFL Next Gen Stats tracking.

Therefore, Pearsall won't be asked to do much heavy lifting as a rookie. His ability to play all the receiver spots should allow him to get on the field when there are injuries, and the Niners hope he can be an instant upgrade over the likes of Ray-Ray McCloud III and Ronnie Bell in that role.

Pearsall's college production suggests that it's possible. In 2023, Pearsall posted 965 receiving yards, the second-most by a Florida player in the past 20 seasons and the sixth-most in the SEC.

A big chunk of those yards came in the middle of the field, an area the 49ers like to target. Over the past two seasons, Pearsall had 14 catches for 338 yards on deep crossing routes, the most in FBS in both categories during that span. His 439 total yards on crossing routes of any kind over the past two seasons ranked second in the FBS.

That fearless, consistent approach to going over the middle jumped out to the Niners during their pre-draft evaluations.

"The one really impressive thing with Ricky, his highlight tape just kept going and going and going," 49ers general manager John Lynch said. "He's an extremely consistent player who makes a lot of plays at a high rate and does so week in, week out. So that's exciting to add a player of that quality."

More than likely, Pearsall's 2024 fit will be largely as a capable backup for the offense with an eye toward a bigger, starting role in 2025 and beyond. Given San Francisco's need for a punt returner, Pearsall has a chance to contribute on special teams right away.

But Shanahan demands a lot from his receivers and the Niners offense isn't easy to digest. Aiyuk had struggles early in his career before blossoming into the team's most productive wideout. Another year of working to add play strength to improve against press coverage and grasp all that Shanahan will ask of him should help Pearsall when his role expands.

"Whatever he asks from me, he's going to put me in the best position," Pearsall said. "That's something that he does a really great job of is putting people in the right spots and attacking their strengths. I'm excited to see where he's putting me in the system."

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