Without a doubt, the biggest key to the 49ers' offseason is finding a way to cope with the absence of the team's leading wide receiver. Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon in OTAs back in May and figures to miss a majority of the season, if not all of 2013. Crabtree emerged as Colin Kaepernick's favorite third down target and was becoming one of the better receivers in a talented NFC crop prior to getting hurt.
The former 10th-overall pick's 1,105 yards and nine regular season touchdowns aren't likely to get replaced by one player. Prior to his injury, San Francisco acquired veteran wideout Anquan Boldin from Baltimore for the small price of a sixth-round draft pick. But it will take a group effort from both personnel and coaches to find way to replicate Crabtree's production.
Boldin's been as consistent a receiver as any in the NFL over his 10-year career. But at 32, he lacks the ability to separate like a true No. 1 target, although he excels at making tough catches in traffic, as the 49ers know from his performance in the Super Bowl.
Throughout OTAs, the microscope has been placed on the wide receiving corps – A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton in particular. The two players are coming off drastically different seasons. Patton made 104 catches for 1,392 yards and 13 scores in his final season at Louisana Tech. Jenkins, however, appeared in just three games for the 49ers and is still looking to make his first reception as a pro.
This week's minicamp will provide the duo more time on the field to build a rapport with Kaepernick and the rest of the offense. The chemistry has appeared to be a work in progress throughout OTAs, but it's very tough to judge players based on their performance without pads this time of year.
Ricardo Lockette's name has gained traction among San Francisco's fans thanks to his extreme athleticism. He's also Kaepernick's roommate and the two trained together in the spring in Atlanta. The former track star appeared in two games for Seattle in 2011 and made a 61-yard touchdown grab in a 23-20 loss in Arizona.
Lockette's an interesting case. He has the athleticism of a first round pick, but the 27-year-old hasn't done enough to prove to coaches he deserves to be on the field in the past. The former track star is rumored to be the fastest player in camp and could provide the vertical threat the team might be lacking.
Other players looking to emerge are Marlon Moore and Kassim Osgood, who have gotten plenty of reps during OTAs while Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham continue to rehab their injuries that ended their 2012 seasons prematurely. Chuck Jacobs and Chad Hall are also in camp.
Kaepernick Fighting the Sophomore Slump
As talented and dynamic as Kaepernick was in 2012, he benefited greatly from being an unknown commodity. That won't be the case this year, as teams will have an entire offseason to prepare for him and the other new age, dual-threat quarterbacks emerging throughout the league.
Jim Harbaugh brought in defensive guru Eric Mangini on a consultant basis to help scheme the offense. That means that as creative as Greg Roman's game plan already was, it's likely to add even more wrinkles in 2013 putting the onus on Kaepernick to grow his game while learning new looks.
And although Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, he has just 10 NFL starts under his belt. This is his first offseason as the team's starting quarterback and he's done everything short of winning the Super Bowl to create massive expectations heading into 2013.
Kaepernick completed 62.4 percent of his passes last year, replacing Alex Smith who completed his at a rate of 70.2 percent. In Smith's first year under Harbaugh, he completed 61.3 percent of his passes. Opposing defenses will look to take away the big play by containing Kaepernick in the pocket and bringing pressure from varying angles. That means that the 25-year-old will have to channel some Smith into his game and improve his overall passing efficiency the same way Smith did in his second year under Harbaugh.
Kaepernick isn't known as a great practice player and showed some inconsistencies during OTAs, albeit without his top-four receivers for a majority of the reps. This week's minicamp will be important for the second-year starter to continue to grasp the playbook and build a relationship with his receivers who are vying to fill the gaping hole left by Crabtree's injury.
Installing the Rookies
The 49ers already had rookie minicamp and three sets of OTAs to help the rookies get acclimated. But there's still plenty of work to be done to get the first-year players ready to handle the rigors of an NFL season.
As Eric Reid gets more reps with the first-team defense, it's becoming clear he will be the team's starting free safety sooner rather than later. And while he physically stands out when running drills with the rest of the defensive backs, the LSU alum is still taking his lumps while learning the complexities of the schemes.
But if Vic Fangio and the rest of the defensive staff didn't think Reid was a quick study, then he would not be getting burn with the first team defense. This minicamp will be another opportunity for Reid to get accustomed to the speed of NFL offenses, even if it is only June.
Cornellius Carradine – AKA ‘Tank' – is likely to remain shelved while recovering from his ACL surgery that caused his fall from a likely first-round pick to No. 40 overall. Same with Quinton Dial, who had toe surgery in January. Both defensive linemen are likely to be ready for the start of training camp. But while they won't be participating on the field in practice, the duo could get a lot of snaps this season and will need to know the defense well to hit the ground running when healthy.
Tight end Vance McDonald, like Reid, will likely see a lot of time with the first unit in his rookie season as he fills the void left by Delanie Walker. His size makes him a unique weapon and he could mold into a viable target in the red zone as the team continues to look for receiving options. He spent most of his collegiate career as a stand-up receiver and will need to improve his blocking. At 6'4" and 270 pounds, he certainly has the frame.
Building Depth on the Offensive Line
Widely regarded as one of the best in football, Roman's top-five lineman are already in place and familiar with the offense. But the 49ers have 15 linemen in camp and are placing the emphasis on versatility when determining who will back up the group on game days.
Adam Snyder figures to be the early favorite, having already played guard and tackle in the same offense in 2011. The 31-year-old also has eight years of experience on his side, while none of his competitors have been in the league for longer than three seasons.
That means the competition for the last backup job falls on Sherman Carter (C), Daniel Kilgore (G), Joe Looney (G), Al Netter (G), Patrick Omameh (G), Wayne Tribue (G), Carter Bykowski (T), Luke Marquardt (T) and Kenny Wiggins (T).
The competition among offensive linemen might be the most contested of any position battle in training camp.
The 49ers have a number of injuries, especially on offense, that need to be tended to prior to the start of training camp. A number have already been mentioned here. But aside from Crabtree and rookie running back Marcus Lattimore, it's likely the other recovering players will be ready to go when the season kicks off.
Marrio Manningham: Tore both his ACL and PCL in Week 16's blowout loss in Seattle. He's been working out lightly with his teammates and will probably not be ready for the start of training camp, but could be back for September 8's season opener against the Packers.
Kendall Hunter: He partially tore his Achilles in the same win over the Saints and has worked out during OTAs, but hasn't gone further than individual drills. He will also likely be back for the start of training camp.
Cameron Morrah: The tight end strained his left leg during OTAs, but the extent of the injury is unknown.
Darius Fleming: the linebacker landed awkwardly during a drill in OTAs and appeared to injure the same left knee that caused him to miss all of last season when he tore his ACL. His status is unknown.
Justin Smith: The team's leader on defense had surgery to repair the triceps muscle he tore in Week 15's win in New England after the season. Smith has been working out on the side and in the weight room. He should be fine for the start of training camp.
Aldon Smith: the team's leader in sacks required surgery to repair a torn labrum after the season and also has done side work. He should be ready to go for training camp.
Kyle Williams: Tore the ACL in his left knee in Week 12's win in New Orleans, 31-21. He's been working both in the weight room and on the practice field, but hasn't participated in drills. He's expected to be ready for training camp.