49ers season preview positional analysis: WRs

NinersDigest will break down the 49ers by position leading up to Sunday's season opener against the Seattle Seahawks, with keys to the season for each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Wide receivers

The 49ers have been looking for a legitimate No. 1 threat to step forward at wide receiver ever since Terrell Owens left the franchise after the 2003 season.

Now they could have two.

The summer addition of Braylon Edwards gives the 49ers a Pro Bowl performer who has previously held the No. 1 distinction elsewhere in the NFL. He joins a talented group that includes third-year veteran Michael Crabtree, a player who has flashed the potential of a legitimate No. 1 receiver since San Francisco made him the No. 10 overall selection of the 2010 draft.

The 49ers have a nice blend of talent and experience to complement those two targets. That includes a third former first-round selection in Ted Ginn, Jr., the No. 9 overall pick of the 2007 draft, and fourth-year veteran Josh Morgan, who has started 26 games and recorded 96 receptions for the team over the past two seasons.

Keys to the season

Maximize the talent: The 49ers now have on their WR unit players that were selected No. 3 overall, No. 9 overall and No. 10 overall in three of the past seven NFL drafts. They need to take advantage of that talent and maximize its potential, even though the team also has Pro Bowl performers at the running back and tight end positions. The Niners have had problems getting this unit involved as a primary component of their attack dating back several years. That needs to change in 2011 with the playmakers they have on hand here.

Get everybody involved: The 49ers have several guys here who will want to see the ball coming to them regularly and are used to getting it thrown their way. Ginn, the team's No. 3 wide receiver last year, finished with just 12 receptions last season, which showed how little the team incorporated the position into the attack. Even starters Crabtree and Morgan combined for just 99 receptions in 2010, a pedestrian figure compared to most NFL teams. The 49ers have four players here who are accustomed to being NFL starters, so they have to find a way to keep all of them happy and working hard toward team goals, and that means spreading the ball around and putting it in the air often.

Learn to co-exist: In relation to the key above, it has yet to be seen how Crabtree and Edwards will be able to work in unison, particularly if one becomes noticeably more prominent in the game plan. As former 49ers Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, now an ESPN analyst, said during a conference call this week, "I think with Braylon and Crabtree, if they can get along in the locker room, because you got two guys with really big heads and they're going to have to work together as a cohesive group of receivers, to get this job done." Well, yeah, that about covers it. If the "two guys with really big heads" have problems co-existing, that's only going to cause more problems for a team that has enough already.

Edwards must keep out of trouble: This may be a moot point, because Edwards has been a stand-up guy since he joined the 49ers and has spoken openly about keeping his act together and getting a fresh start in San Francisco. But he still has a checkered past of dubious off-the-field incidents, even after he became a Pro Bowl standout, and some of them have occurred in the not-so-distant past. So Edwards must remain true to his word and take advantage of the new opportunity the 49ers are giving him.

The bottom line

This promises to be San Francisco's best top-to-bottom receiver unit in perhaps a decade, maybe even all the way back to when the Niners were fielding a unit that included Rice, Owens and J.J. Stokes. With the addition of Edwards, a true difference-maker and big red-zone target, the 49ers can't help but be better than last year at a position that was under-utilized in 2010 as part of a wayward offensive attack. If this unit can work as one and the 49ers can get their receivers the football, good and potentially great things could happen.

Unit at a glance

Starters for season opener: Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr.
Reserves: Braylon Edwards, Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams
Key new arrivals: Braylon Edwards, John Morton
Key departures: WR coach Jerry Sullivan
Wide receivers coach: John Morton, first season with 49ers, ninth year of NFL experience.

STRENGTHS: A complete, dynamic unit with four starting-caliber players. Two No. 1-caliber receivers in Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree who can both be physical playmakers. A solid complementary possession receiver in Josh Morgan. A speedster who can stretch defenses in Ted Ginn Jr. Young talent in Kyle Williams who showed potential as a slot receiver during the preseason.

WEAKNESSES: Crabtree missed training camp and all four preseason games for the third consecutive year and will take time to get in shape and get with the program in a new offense. The foot injury issues that kept Crabtree out this summer remain a concern. Without any offseason preparation time, it remains to be seen how well a talented group can work together while they continue to learn and get comfortable in a new offensive system being taught by new coaches.

By the numbers

15.9: Average yards per catch on 44 receptions by Josh Morgan during 2010 season, the team's best figure among wide receivers.

20: Combined total of receptions during four 2011 preseason games by wide receivers currently on the San Francisco roster.

27: Consecutive games with at least one reception since entering the NFL for Michael Crabtree, the first player to do that for the 49ers since Earl Cooper in 1981.

121: Combined total of receptions for all San Francisco wide receivers during 2010 season.

50,000: Number of dollars that Braylon Edwards was fined by the NFL this week for violating the league's substance abuse policy in connection with a DUI incident that occurred last year.

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