Who is Bruce Ellington?

Jaron Foster


After recording the first reception of his professional career on Sunday versus the Chiefs, rookie Bruce Ellington is the fifth San Francisco wide receiver to catch a pass in 2014. With question marks surrounding the futures of all other players on the depth chart beyond this season due to expiring contracts, age, or declining productivity, the 2014 fourth round pick (#106 overall) may find himself as a primary target in the passing game for the 49ers as early as 2015. Having received some admirable NFL comparisons (Randall Cobb in particular), Andre Ellington’s cousin Bruce is a player worth a deeper look.

The 5’9”, 197-pound receiver from South Carolina did it all in high school as he posted an impressive combination of passing, rushing, receiving and return statistics on the gridiron. He stayed local when selecting a college, attending the University of South Carolina (USC) and starred on the basketball court as a freshman in 2010 (he was a nationally ranked point guard coming out of high school). The following season he put his priorities in order and focused on football, though he didn’t fully give up basketball until his senior season to train for the NFL Combine.

In 2011, he demonstrated the versatility from his high school days as he was a focal point of both the offense and special teams, amassing over 800 total yards in many roles. He focused more on his receiving game the following season, catching 40 passes for 600 yards and seven touchdowns though he was still used as a kick returner and occasionally out of the backfield. As a senior, his special teams usage diminished as he caught 49 passes for 775 yards and eight touchdowns while also tossing a nine-yard touchdown pass. Overall, he totaled 1,586 yards on 106 receptions for 16 touchdowns while rushing for 148 yards and returning kicks for nearly 1,000 yards.

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The time Ellington put in to train for the NFL Combine paid off as he recorded a 39.5” vertical jump (tied for third among wide receivers with Davante Adams and Donte Moncrief), a 3.95 second 20-yard shuttle (fifth), and a 11.12 second 60-yard shuttle (fourth). He also posted a 4.45 40-yard dash, good for eleventh at the position but disappointing in the eyes of some evaluators who had hoped for a better time given his size.

Despite this “poor” showing in the drill, there is a lot to like about this playmaker. Though he is only 5’9”, he is solidly built and displays toughness and fearlessness in his game. He has great burst off the line and a strong lateral move to put defenders off-balance. Though he is considered a good route-runner with good hands, his best skill may be an ability to adjust as needed to passes with a very wide catch radius. His aforementioned versatility translates to the ability to play effectively either in the slot or outside, resulting in coaches using Ellington in a variety of formations in a single game.

On the field evaluators point to his size as Ellington’s biggest “weakness,” which speaks well to his abilities. Despite his versatility, the sample size is small as lack of complexity in USC’s offense prevented him from running a wide variety of routes. This lack of playcalls has contributed to a tendency to improvise mid-route, making it difficult at times to be on the same page with his quarterback. Perhaps the biggest concern about Ellington is the question of commitment to football given his talent and the time he spent playing basketball. Presumably, however, San Francisco did their research in this area before spending a valuable fourth-round pick on him.

Overall, the comparison to Cobb reflects a combination of size and build as well as versatility (as a receiver and in the return game) and athleticism as a playmaker. At this stage of his career, perhaps a more reasonable comparison is Jacksonville wide receiver Ace Sanders. Thus far in the 2014 season, Ellington has played primarily on special teams with nine punt returns for 76 yards and nine kickoff returns for 225 yards. His first usage on the offense was out of the backfield where he was handed the ball once for a yard in week three and again in week four for 15 yards. He did not haul in his lone targets in weeks two and three, finally recording his first reception last week for a single yard.

No receiver on the 49ers has separated themselves from the pack, with elder statesman Anquan Boldin leading the way with 25 receptions for 303 yards and no touchdowns through five games. Michael Crabtree, Steve Johnson and Brandon Lloyd have also caught passes, though all are averaging fewer than 50 yards receiving per game. Bringing Ellington into the mix offensively could conceivably bring some electricity to an offense that could use a jolt.

San Francisco management saw first-hand what Ellington could do in the preseason as he far outpaced his teammates with twelve receptions on seventeen targets for 121 yards and a touchdown. They also saw their rookie respond well to an increased workload all over the field.

Long-term, the 49ers’ depth chart appears much shorter than it currently stands. Recent draft picks including Ronald Johnson (sixth round 2011) and AJ Jenkins (first round in 2012) are no longer on the roster. Only Steve Johnson is signed beyond the 2015 season, though his salary cap hit more than doubles next year and the veteran wide receiver could consequently be a training camp cap casualty.

In the preseason, Ellington was widely selected in the late-third or early-fourth round range in rookie drafts. According to September mock drafts, dynasty owners are down on Ellington as he went undrafted. While on paper he is far down the depth chart, a gradually increasing role in the offense coupled with the need for a spark in the passing game could make Ellington fantasy-relevant this season. He will likely only command a few targets a game this year, but this could be setting the stage for a breakout in 2015. While he is not a #1 receiver, he could become an important piece and future flex option.


jaron foster
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