As far as Mike Martz is concerned, size does not matter. In 2003, while head coach of the St. Louis Rams, he drafted a player in the fourth round, 5-9 Shaun McDonald, most teams deemed too small to play in the NFL. Said Martz at the time: "He puts us in a situation where if you put a third corner on the field, we'll have a good mismatch. ... He has incredible quickness and an unusually good change of direction. He fits perfectly with what we do and is exactly what we look for. The only reason he was picked on the second day was his size, which we have no issue with. We just want guys who can run."
The key phrase there is "change of direction." Martz wanted No. 3 and 4 receivers who would pose match-up nightmares with the opposition's No. 3 and 4 cornerbacks. That same year, the Rams drafted Kevin Curtis (6-0) in the third round and brought in Mike Furrey (6-0) from the Arena League. Martz would bring McDonald and Furrey with him when he went to the Detroit Lions in 2006. That season, Furrey caught 98 passes. Martz isn't the only one who sees the value of a jitterbug slot receiver. The Patriots used Wes Welker (5-9) in that role perhaps better than anyone ever before. Welker caught 112 passes this past season, and if the Patriots had won the Super Bowl - who knows? - Welker might have been the MVP. The beauty of someone like Welker, Furrey, Curtis, et al. is that they not only provide a consistent target for short, underneath routes, they force the defense to commit more resources to those underneath routes thus opening up the big, downfield plays (what Mike Nolan calls the "explosives.")
The problem for Nolan and Martz is that the 49ers don't have that ultra-quick No. 3 receiver. The closest thing they have is Michael Lewis, who turns 37 this year and who hasn't caught a pass since 2004. In fact, over the past three seasons, the 49ers have gone in the totally opposite direction -- drafting for size, not quickness. They certainly have receivers that can get downfield - Ashley Lelie, Jason Hill - but no one adept at creating distance between himself and the defender in a limited amount of space, which is where Welker exceled in 2007. Of the four mighty mites I listed above, the least productive last season was Furrey, who finished with 61 catches for 664 yards. Still, those numbers would have led - by a comfortable margin - the 49ers in 2007.
The 49ers could find someone to fit the role of elusive third-down receiver in the draft. The first player who comes to mind is Louisville's Harry Douglas, who had 70 or more receptions in each of the last two seasons. Douglas stood out during Senior Bowl practices, and during the game color announcer Trent Dilfer raved about Douglas' potential as a slot receiver. Other names that could draw interst are Houston's Donnie Avery and Virginia Tech's Eddie Royal, who could also replace Lewis as a return man. The combine, which kicks off this week, undoubtedly will help unveil a few more candidates.
-- Matt Barrows