49ers positional analysis: Wide receiver

With the calendar now turned to June, it's time to break down the personnel the 49ers currently have on their roster, for better or worse, at each individual position. The names and numbers will surely change by the time the team is actually practicing and playing football again, but here's a status report with the scheduled start of training camp fewer than two months away. Today: Wide receivers

Starters at beginning of 2010 season: Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan

Starters at finish of 2010 season: Michael Crabtree (in one-WR, two-TE, two-RB set)

2010 positional grade: C-minus

Wide receivers currently on roster: Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn, Dominique Zeigler, Kyle Williams, Kevin Jurovich, Lance Long, Ronald Johnson (sixth-round draft pick)

Pending free agents: None

Need to upgrade position before season: Moderate


The 49ers thought they finally had it right at the wide receiver position entering the 2010 season.

They had a young, highly-touted prospect as their No. 1 wideout in Michael Crabtree, who was coming off a promising rookie season during which he didn't even join the team until October. They had a young, promising No. 2 in Josh Morgan, who had shown flashes of brilliance during his first two NFL seasons.

Together, they promised to give the 49ers their best 1-2 punch at receiver since Terrell Owens left the team after the 2003 season. In fact, it seemed as though they might already had reached that status.

And then, to complement them, during the 2010 offseason the 49ers added speedy Ted Ginn as a No. 3 wideout who could stretch defenses with the best of them, allowing Crabtree, Morgan and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis more room to roam underneath coverage.

That appeared to be the kind of solid nucleus and strong foundation for which the 49ers had been searching for all too long at the receiver position. With those youngsters already producing on the field, there seemed nowhere to go but up.

Well, at least we can still say there's nowhere to go but up for that group after a disappointing 2010 season for the entire receiver unit.

Crabtree never took the next step to legitimate No. 1 receiver, Morgan too often disappeared for notable stretches in games, Ginn was just as likely to drop a pass as he was to catch it, and the team got only one reception from sixth-round draft pick Kyle Williams, who was a nonfactor in his rookie season.

So what do the 49ers do to get better at the position in 2011?

It's most likely the team will basically stand pat.

Crabtree is just 23 years old. Morgan is 25. Ginn just turned 26 in April. Williams is 22, and the 49ers added another promising youngster in 22-year-old USC product Ronald Johnson, their sixth-round draft pick this year.

In other words, the 49ers still have plenty of room to grow at wide receiver, and they have some young guys who already have gotten their feet wet with which to do it.

The unit as a whole didn't do enough to make a decisive impact during last year's 6-10 crash-and-burn season in which the 49ers finished 24th in the NFL in total offense.

But that's not to say there weren't stretches of quality production from the two primary targets, Crabtree and Morgan. Crabtree led all San Francisco wideouts with 55 receptions, 741 yards receiving and six touchdown grabs. Morgan was next in all three categories with 44-698-2, finishing with a healthy 15.9-yard average per catch.

Crabtree had some big performances, like his 9-reception, 105-yard effort in Week 5 against Philadelphia and his 6-for-122 effort at St. Louis in Week 6, when he scored on a 60-yard catch-and-run to put the 49ers ahead at halftime. But Crabtree also failed to have more than three receptions in nine of San Francisco's 16 games.

In other words, he was inconsistent. And then there was the horrible route he ran in the season opener against Seattle, a play that resulted in an interception return for a touchdown that turned the tide in that game and seemed to set the tone for Crabtree's entire up-and-down season.

Crabtree remains an enigma as he has yet to join teammates during the NFL lockout for workouts that are being organized by quarterback Alex Smith. Morgan has been a regular at those workouts. It would seem Crabtree should be there too.

Nonetheless, the 49ers are banking on a breakout season from Crabtree, who was considered one of the top WR prospects in years to come out of the college ranks when the 49ers selected him early in the first round of the 2009 draft. In new coach Jim Harbaugh's offense, the 49ers need Crabtree to step up as the legitimate No. 1 target he didn't become in his sophomore season. He figures to be given every chance to do so.

That is likely to be the case with the entire WR unit as a whole: They'll be given another chance under new coaches and a new offensive system to be better than they were in 2010.

The 49ers don't really have a lot of other options. They don't want to continue the merry-go-round at the position the team has experienced at the position for much of the past decade, bringing in veterans each year through free agency who mostly failed to make the impact that was hoped for.

There are experienced veterans with proven track records who will be available when free agency finally begins this year, as there always are, and the 49ers will consider bringing in one of them to challenge Morgan and the disappointing Ginn for a lead spot in the receiving rotation.

But what the 49ers want to see happen is the young wideouts already on their roster to continue their development and lift their production to complement a top-notch pass-catching tight end in Vernon Davis and a strong running game anchored by veteran Frank Gore.

Ginn will get another opportunity as a receiver to show the 49ers why they sent a fifth-round draft pick to Miami last year to acquire him, and why the Dolphins used the No. 9 overall pick of the 2007 draft to bring him into the NFL. Ginn's roster spot appears secure because of his abilities as a kick returner, but the 49ers won't wait around for him as a wide receiver if he plays at the position like he did in 2010 (just 12 receptions, with only two covering more than 20 yards).

The 49ers also are anxious to see what they have in Williams, whose rookie season was a bust in part due to injuries, and Johnson, who played under new 49ers receivers coach John Morton the past four years when both were at USC. Morton is taking over for veteran assistant Jerry Sullivan, who served as San Francisco's receivers coach the past six seasons but was not retained by Harbaugh.


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