The San Francisco 49ers have been hit with an unfamiliar problem in the 2013 NFL season: injuries. It all started with Michael Crabtree tearing his Achilles tendon during organized team activities. This injury prevented the 49ers from having what would have been one of the toughest receiver combos in the NFL.
The front office envisioned having Anquan Boldin and Crabtree as their starters. Both of these players are what I have repeatedly referred to as hungry wide receivers. They play the game with aggression. Their ability to break tackles and generate yards after the catch is especially evident on third downs when they are in the slot position.
Now that Crabtree has been put on the shelf for most of the season, what is left of the receiving corps?
The injury bug hit the wide receivers again when a broken finger caused Quinton Patton to be out for the first couple of weeks of training camp. He was able to participate but in a limited role. The last two preseason games caused a lot of fans to be excited about Patton. He had two touchdowns in those games and played very well on a few drives.
Patton didn’t have any catches in the first three games as he played sparingly. His first reception came against the St. Louis Rams. Unfortunately, he suffered a fractured foot on that play. Patton is now set to be out for another four weeks.
Kyle Williams was named the starter before the season opener. Many had high hopes for Williams as he had shown flashes over the last two years. He also was able to develop good chemistry with Colin Kaepernick while they were working together with the second team offense.
Williams has shown the ability to catch the ball down field. A good example was his 44 yard catch against the Chicago Bears last year. It’s too bad none of that momentum carried over to this year. Williams has struggled. I was expecting this year to be a breakout season for Williams. Here is his game log over the first four games:
- vs GB 3 rec 6 targets 36 yards 12.0 yds/rec 0 TDs
- vs Sea 4 rec 6 targets 39 yards 9.8 yds/rec 0 TDs
- vs Ind 2 rec 6 targets 12 yards 6.0 yds/rec 0 TDs
- vs Rams 0 rec 0 targets 0 yards 0.0 yds/rec 0 TDs
Williams has been a non factor, to say the least. He has gotten open on a few plays but the opposing pass rush has caused Kaepernick to miss him a few times. Williams had an opportunity for a big play against the Packers when Kaepernick threw the ball to him on a nine route near the 49ers’ sideline. He failed to high point the ball, instead waiting for it to fall into his arms. That allowed the defender, Sam Shields to knock the ball away. Granted, the ball was some what under thrown, but Williams still has to go up and get it.
Marlon Moore was given the starter treatment early in training camp. He was the starter opposite of Anquan Boldin in all of the preseason games while Kyle Williams was coming back from his knee injury. This was a surprise decision but Moore beat out A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette and a few others who are no longer around.
The expectations for Moore as a receiver were really unknown because we did not get to see too much of him during preseason games. I had the opportunity to watch him during a few training camp practices but that was not nearly enough exposure to form any expectations.
Moore is a California product, born in Sacramento and played for Fresno State. He was with the Miami Dolphins for two years before they released him. His career stats are 13 receptions, 250 yards, and zero touchdowns. Not exactly the kind of stats that would excite anyone. This season, Moore has one catch for six yards. Needless to say, he is not a factor in the passing game.
This leads us to what I would call the wildcard of the receiving corps. Trent Baalke and company cut ties with 2012 first round pick A.J. Jenkins when they traded him for Jonathan Baldwin in a player for player deal. Baldwin had worn out his welcome in Kansas City after being a first round pick inn 2011.
Many were fascinated with his height, weight and speed when Baldwin came out of the University of Pittsburgh. I spoke to Scott Pioli, the then general manager of the Chiefs about Baldwin. He told me that Baldwin is a great kid that needs to be on a team that has structure in place. He said that Baldwin needs to remain in the same system over time in order to succeed. Pioli felt that the 49ers were the ideal place for him because of Jim Harbaugh and the structure in place in San Francisco.
Baldwin was inactive over the first couple of games as he tried to get familiar with the 49ers’ offense. He was active for the recent game against the Rams. Baldwin had two catches for 19 yards. His first catch was a 15-yard reception on a slant route in which he was able to use his big body to shield Trumain Johnson from the ball. This is the exact kind of play that the 49ers need from Baldwin.
Baldwin’s size will help him get into position to make catches. At 6’4″ 230 pounds, he is bigger than most corner backs. He also possesses a 42-inch vertical. That is equal to the vertical for Dominique Wilkins, one of the best dunkers in NBA history! He also ran a 4.49 in the forty yard dash. Those are very impressive measurables.
I am very eager to see how Greg Roman and the offensive staff will take advantage of the potential playmaking ability that Baldwin has. He has not had the best start to his career but some of that can be attributed to some bad quarterback play while he was with the Chiefs. It is hard to not imagine that Kaepernick and Baldwin can be a productive tandem in San Francisco. His recent acquisition is the equivalent of making an in season trade for a wide receiver. The advantage here is that Baldwin has had a few weeks to get familiar with the new offense.
Chris Harper and Kassim Osgood are two players on the roster that are also not expected to contribute much if at all. Osgood is a big, tall receiver but his contribution is primarily on special teams. Harper is an interesting prospect out of Kansas State. I likened him to Boldin because of his physicality in his routes, his likeness for blocking and his build which is similar to a running back. The 49ers see Harper as a similar player to Delanie Walker, who left for the Tennessee Titans via free agency. They are almost exactly the same size but Walker does have more speed.
The tight end situation is still something that will be a factor in the passing game. Vernon Davis is as dangerous as any receiver on this team. The 49ers will use him in the slot, outside and in bunch formations to get favorable match ups against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs. He has the ability to dominate a game.
Vance McDonald is also an option. He can be a factor in both 12 and 22 personnel packages. His size makes him a weapon catching the ball in the flats and bowling over the first defender that comes to tackle him. The 49ers can use him in the high precision passing game off of play action especially when the running game is going well. They can boot Kaepernick while they have McDonald run an arrow route and have Bruce Miller leak out into the flat. This will give Kaepernick a high/low read which will allow him to make an easy decision. A lot of coordinators do this to help a young quarterback that can run get into a rhythm and gain confidence.
Lastly, Mario Manningham is set to come back from injury and will be able to practice in two weeks. When healthy, he is the best outside receiver on the 49ers. Manningham doesn’t put up huge numbers so a lot of the stat fans won’t be excited about his return. However, he will make some very timely catches from the X position.
The 49ers receiving corps is a work-in-progress. They need to stick to focusing on the running game and using that to free up the passing game. They do have some options at receiver that can make plays. Fortunately, the offense is at its best when it is in two tight end formations. The team has been linked to some of the receivers that are on the trading block, but trading for a receiver at this point would be an act of panic.