Very Deep Sleepers: Bruce Ellington (49ers)
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I’m not sure how ‘very deep’ of a sleeper Ellington is. I mean, he was a fourth-round draft pick in 2014. He has been on the field on and off for the 49ers the last two seasons, but mostly as a kick and punt returner (a top 10 kick return average in the NFL the past two seasons).
However, if you look for him among the current top 120 PPR wide receivers for 2016 ranked by FantasyPros’ experts, you won’t find him listed. Jarius Wright (No. 117) made the FantasyPros’ expert cut.
Dwayne Harris (No. 110) is also there, right now. But no sign of Ellington – so I’m going to run with the ‘very deep sleeper’ label here.
Allow me to add this twist on the ‘very deep sleeper’ angle – I’m not promoting Ellington as a ‘very deep sleeper’ merely because he’s absent from some top 120 WR list. I am writing this piece because I believe he is a ‘very deep sleeper’ who has a chance to start the 2016 fantasy football season as a PPR WR2 right out of the gate. Before I lay out the case for how Ellington could be starting for some team in your fantasy league on Opening Day, I need to make the case for his talent.
Ellington was a fairly productive wide receiver for South Carolina in 2012–2013. His college numbers were not jaw-dropping, but they were pretty good for a receiver playing in a run-first offense, with some musical chairs at the quarterback position during his time, plus he had a few NFL-level wide receiver talents to share targets with (Ace Sanders and Damiere Byrd).
Despite the muddy situation, Ellington emerged as a leader and scored 15 TDs over his final 20 college games. He also ran for one touchdown and threw a TD pass at South Carolina (completed four of five passes in his college career).
You also have to keep in mind that Ellington went to South Carolina as a scholarship basketball player not even thinking about football. Ellington took over the starting point guard role for an SEC basketball team in his freshman year and ran the point as a starter for four straight seasons (but was limited in his final year to just three games). After being named to the SEC All-Freshman team, the following year he walked onto the football team.
He played right away, catching 17 passes and also running the ball 17 times, while returning 20 kicks for the team. He was a raw football player, but he got better each season, and as the seasons wore on. He split his attention between the two sports…being a starter and producer in two sports in the SEC is pretty impressive.
He was a good enough football prospect to get an NFL Combine invite, and when he ran a 4.45 40-time with a sensational 3.95 short shuttle and 6.69 three-cone to go along with a 39.5″ vertical – suddenly Ellington was creating an NFL Draft buzz. He was the 106th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
True to form, Ellington walked into the NFL, like he did in the SEC for basketball and football, and started playing right away. Ellington was active Week 1 for then-coach Jim Harbaugh. He started out his NFL career returning punts as a rookie, but then quickly became the team’s top kick returner as well.
He slowly worked his way into the offense, seeing a target or a carry here and there. In Week 7, he scored his first touchdown.
In Week 16 of that rookie season, Ellington had a coming-out party, of sorts. Jim Harbaugh started him, and Ellington rewarded the decision by catching an eight-yard TD pass, and then later rushing for a one-yard score. That game marked the first real effort to get Ellington involved in the offense – four targets and three rushing attempts. However, he was banged up mid-game and didn’t return…and didn’t return for the season finale.
Ellington would finish his rookie season with 12 total touches – six carries and six catches. He scored an impressive three touchdowns on those 12 touches.
In 2015, Ellington had a new coach, a new system and was used sparingly. When he entered a game in 2015, there was a concentrated effort to get him the ball – mostly quick, bubble screen passes. He was the team’s main return man again, but wasn’t much a part of the offense overall, especially when Blaine Gabbert took over.
Now, here we are in 2016 – Ellington’s third NFL season and his third NFL coach. It’s the new coach, the pairing with Chip Kelly, that may be a rocket fuel boost to Ellington’s wide receiver career.
To begin with, the 49ers do not have a deep or experienced wide receiver group. Torrey Smith is the lead veteran, and then Ellington and Quinton Patton are the next-most experienced, viable wide receivers for the team. The path to the No. 2 or No. 3 wide receiver role for the 49ers is very much open.
Many dynasty fantasy GMs like a second-year wide receiver DeAndre Smelter to emerge. I say, it doesn’t matter.
The path to Ellington becoming a WR2/WR3 on Opening Day has nothing to do with who is going to beat out whom among the 49ers’ young wide receiver prospects. This is all about how the different receivers can be used, and what the coaches are looking for.
We know what Smith brings – he’s the team’s WR1, and he’s mainly used as a medium-to-deep threat. Smelter is an unproven, but big, physical catcher of the ball – kind of an Anquan Boldin replacement hope.
Patton is a quality receiver, but not a weapon of mass destruction. Ellington is totally different from all of those other receivers.
He is more of a new-age wide receiver – the guy you want to purposefully get the ball to a couple of times a game via the bubble screen. You can also use him as a quasi-change-of-pace running back, whether you line him up in the backfield, or you just bring him in motion.
Ellington gives Chip Kelly a De’Anthony Thomas-like dimension that Kelly exploited at Oregon. Ellington also has a bit of a Josh Huff vibe. Huff is another Oregon guy Chip Kelly was grooming for a similar role in Philly.
But Ellington is more physically gifted than Thomas or Huff. You can use Ellington in a variety of creative ways – bubble screens, running the ball, but also as a legit downfield wide receiver if you try to play up on him. Ellington is a poor man’s Tavon Austin – roughly the same size as Austin, just a hair slower in 40-time compared to Austin, but Ellington is a hair quicker in agility times…both of them measuring with elite NFL agility times.
What happens when you take an elite athlete who can return kicks, play a short or long game at wide receiver and run the ball like a smaller running back…and then team him with one of the most creative offensive coaching minds of the last decade? You can’t ask that about Patton or Smelter, but you can ask that about Ellington.
What if Chip Kelly names Ellington as a starting wide receiver, and starts using him like a mad scientist in the preseason? Ellington’s ADP will rocket from nonexistent, today, to top 25–50 among WRs in August.
If he is used in an innovative way in the preseason, and he is a starting wide receiver on Opening Day – tell me how he is not a fantasy WR2/WR3 possibility in Week 1.
The 49ers did not re-sign Boldin. They did not take a wide receiver in the draft until the sixth round. The team seems set on their current WR depth chart.
I would argue that Ellington is the second-most talented wide receiver on their team. Bigger picture, he’s the most unique weapon at wide receiver on the 49ers’ depth chart, and he’s now teamed with an innovative, radical offensive mind.
The possibilities are tantalizing. The valuation today, compared to three months from now, could be breathtaking in its rise.