The San Francisco 49ers have had question marks at the wide receiver position ever since Terrell Owens walked out that door. The Niners have not had a wide receiver reach the thousand yard plateau since Owens went for 1,102 yards in 2003. That was until last season, when Michael Crabtree had a breakthrough season with 1,105 yards receiving. The Niners had hope Crabtree would take that next step into the NFL’s elite this season.
During the offseason, the Niners made a move with the Baltimore Ravens to bring over stud wide receiver Anquan Boldin to provide Crabtree with a legitimate threat at the second wide receiver position. That would allow the Niners’ plethora of young, speedy receivers to battle it out for the slot position. That would have turned the Niners receiver depth from precariously thin to a legitimate receiver core.
That all changed on a day during the team’s post-daft mini camps. Crabtree would tear his Achilles’s tendon and would place his season in doubt. He is expected to miss the majority of the season and possibly make a return towards the end of the season. As of now, the Niners have Anquan Boldin and a bunch of young players to try and make up for the loss of production from Crabtree.
The team loaded up its preseason roster with receivers in an effort to find talent to bulk up it receiver depth. The team carried 10 receivers on its roster, not including Crabtree or Mario Manningham. The team was hoping former first round pick A.J. Jenkins would finally take that step forward along with fourth round pick Quinton Patton. The team also brought in special teams aces Marlon Moore and Kasim Osgood. They also brought in veteran receivers Lavelle Hawkins and Austin Collie.
Jenkins would never take that step forward during the preseason and was then traded to the Chiefs for former first round pick Jon Baldwin. Patton would miss a majority of the preseason with a finger injury, but he was able to take “mental reps” as he healed and then exploded on to the scene with big performances in the final two preseason contests. The two young players looked like polar opposites during the preseason and Patton is quickly becoming a fan favorite.
Moore would would be impressive in his play and eventually would earn reps with the first team offense. Moore has impressive speed and is a decent route runner. He provides the offense with a steady hand, but needs to translate his great speed into big plays. After earning first team reps, Moore’s spot on the roster was secured.
Hawkins had an impressive preseason with several explosive plays, but would make a couple major mistakes that resulted in three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in a single game. Hawkins looked like he had a shot a making the roster with his big play potential, but Baldwin’s guaranteed contract most likely played a role in Hawkins not making the roster.
When the team wrapped up its preseason schedule they had to make a lot of tough roster decisions, as they lowered their roster to 53 players. With the team only keeping five receivers on the roster, it was going to leave a couple good players off of the roster. The team ultimately kept Boldin, Moore, Patton, Baldwin, and Kyle Williams, who was nursing a hamstring injury throughout camp. The team has since added a sixth receiver in the Seahawks 2013 fourth round pick Chris Harper, but they envision him in an H-Back role similar to what Delanie Walker was in. With only one proven receiver on the roster, who will step up to provide production alongside Boldin?
Just to get it out of the way, the Niners like to involve their tight ends in the offensive game plan and they could be in store for a major increase in production with two talented, athletic pass catchers in Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald. Davis could again get close to the 1,000 yard mark, as the potential combination of Kaepernick and Davis showed their potential to light up the stat sheet in last season’s playoffs. McDonald is bigger than Davis, but only slightly less athletic, while he looks to play an even bigger role than what Walker did last season. Also, Harper has the potential to provide some impact, as he has the talent to be successful at the NFL level.
As for the receivers, Boldin is going to be cream of the crop. Boldin has been highly productive over his 10 year career with 772 catches for 10,165 yards and 58 touchdowns. He averages 5.5 receptions per game for 72.6 yards per game through his career, but the majority of his numbers come from when he was younger and had Larry Fitzgerald opposite of him.
Boldin’s time in Baltimore is more what the Niners can expect, which is a steady, productive possession receiver. Boldin in Baltimore averaged 4.1 receptions per game for 58.8 yards per game. I would expect slightly higher higher numbers in San Francisco, due to his role as the go-to receiver. A season with 60 to 70 receptions for 850 to 950 yards and 5 to 8 touchdowns would be the ideal season for the big bodied receiver.
The receiver listed opposite of Boldin on the team’s depth chart is fourth year speedster Williams. Williams has shown flashes of big play potential during his career, but his place down on the depth chart and injury problems have limited his production. Williams shows the ability to consistently get behind the defense and should thrive with Kaepernick’s ability to accurately hit the deep ball. If healthy, I would not be surprised to see Williams have a highly productive year. Expect 40 to 50 receptions for 500 to 600 yards and four touchdowns would be the production of a healthy season.
Listed behind those two are Moore and Patton. Moore is in fourth year and has mostly been a special teams contributor in his short career. Moore would likely see more time on the outside when the team goes to a three receiver set. He should provide some production in a rotational basis, which would be around 30 receptions for about 250 to 350 yards and two touchdowns.
Patton looks like he has the potential to carryover his prolific production from college. He is sure handed, runs crisp routes, and has plenty of speed to pull away from defenders. He had two touchdowns in two games during the preseason. Patton has the versatility to play multiple receiver positions and the Niners could move him around to create opportunities to get the ball in his hands. He could be highly productive as a rookie, with roughly 45 receptions for nearly 500 yards and five touchdowns.
The final receiver on the depth chart is the former first round pick Baldwin. Baldwin is a player they have not had in several years, as he is big target at 6’4” and 230 pounds. Baldwins’s production could slip due to his late addition in the preseason, which leads to his low position on the depth chart. I expect Baldwin to be a role player with the occasionally opportunity to stretch the defense. He can also expect some chances in the red zone with his size being put to use. I would expect a season near his career production with approximately 25 receptions for roughly 300 yards and two touchdowns.
The Niners should emphasize the passing game more often than in years past, as teams attempt to take away the running game. Kaepernick has also shown that he is highly effective as a passer and can beat teams with his impressive arm. The Niners might not have a true go-to receiver, as Boldin will struggle to put up similar numbers to Crabtree’s, but they will have a more balanced attack with multiple targets spreading out the production. The tight ends will also see more targets than in previous seasons. So, the Niners might not be able to replace the production of Crabtree, but they should be in a much better place than in previous seasons.