A Look Back at 2012
The 49ers fancied themselves as a ball control team built around a versatile, power running game with an efficient passing game when Alex Smith was at the helm. But the offense took on a different look when Colin Kaepernick became the starter midway through the season. Suddenly, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman's offense had the explosive element it lacked and became one of the more versatile units in the NFC. That was thanks to the new quarterback's ability to push the ball down the field to the wide receivers.
In his fourth season, Michael Crabtree emerged as one of the better wideouts in the conference, averaging over 107 yards in the last five games of the regular season while registering 119 and 109-yard games in the divisional round and Super Bowl, respectively. Crabtree received the most snaps of any receiver on the roster and was targeted 118 times. Mario Manningham saw the second-most among receivers at 55, while Randy Moss had just 47 targets. Tight end Vernon Davis was targeted the second-most of any pass catcher with 56. Yes, Crabtree was targeted more than twice any other player in the passing game.
Crabtree's effectiveness lied in his strong hands and reliability, making him No. 1 target on a majority of third-down plays. Manningham played in just 12 games in his first season since coming over from the New York Giants. But his ACL tear in Week 16 against Seattle ended his season early. Manningham averaged nearly 11 yards per catch and even had three rushes for 64 yards.
Moss played in less than half of the team's offensive snaps and made just 28 receptions for 434 yards giving him a 15.5-yard average. But the 35-year-old did manage to play in every game. The chemistry wasn't completely there with either Kaepernick or Smith. The team completed just 59.6 percent of passes thrown his way. Of course, one of the biggest plays of Moss' season came in the Super Bowl when Kaepernick overthrew him and Ed Reed made the interception in the 49ers' territory (the Ravens were unable to capitalize as they failed to convert on a fake field goal run by Justin Tucker).
Kyle Williams earned an expanded role in his third season, but appeared in just 11 games before suffering an ACL tear in New Orleans. Unfortunately for the team, his knee injury came on the same play running back Kendal Hunter tore his Achilles tendon. Williams finished with 14 catches, 212 yards and a score for the year. While healthy, he saw more time in the slot than other 49ers receiver at 54.1 percent of the snaps.
Ted Ginn Jr. and rookie A.J. Jenkins were the only two other receivers to see snaps on offense in the regular season, combining for three targets. Ginn had two receptions on the year while being used primarily on kick returns. Jenkins had a disappointing rookie season and only appeared in four games. He dropped the only pass thrown his way Week 17 against Arizona. Chad Hall made an appearance in the NFC Championship game, but didn't have a reception.
Comings and Goings
The biggest development of the entire offseason for the 49ers has been the loss of Crabtree, who tore his Achilles tendon early on in OTAs. It's unclear how long he will be out, but Harbaugh said he didn't believe it was a season-ending injury. The injury couldn't come at a worse time in Crabtree's career path as he's coming off his best season as a professional since getting drafted in the first round in 2009.
Before Crabtree's injury, San Francisco acquired veteran Anquan Boldin from the champion Ravens for a sixth-round draft pick. Boldin is a familiar foe for the 49ers, that starred against San Francisco in the Super Bowl win with six catches, 104 yards and a score. He also starred for the division-rival Cardinals for seven seasons.
Boldin is likely on the wrong end of his outstanding 10-year career, but he represents a commodity the 49ers didn't have outside of Crabtree: the ability to make key catches in traffic. And although the offense ranked eighth in the league in points, it was just 22nd in third-down conversions (36.6 percent) and 14th in red-zone scoring (54.7 percent). Boldin will certainly help in those areas, but Crabtree's absence could have a counteracting impact.
After serving as the team's primary kick returner for his two seasons in San Francisco, Ginn moved on to sign with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent, signing a one-year deal for $1.1 million. The 49ers are comfortable with second-year player LaMichael James taking over for Ginn in the return game. James averaged 29.8 yards on kickoffs and will likely become the primary punt return for the first time in his NFL career.
Trent Baalke used a fourth-round draft pick on Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton to help add depth to the position, hoping Patton can compete for snaps early on his career. The 6'0", 204 pounder was extremely productive during his years at the small school. He combined for nearly 2,600 yards in his two seasons for the Bulldogs and projects to be a far more productive player than where he was drafted. Patton endeared himself to the coaching staff early, showing up to the team facility earlier than he was allowed under NFL rules.
With Manningham and Williams still working their way back from ACL injuries, a good training camp and preseason could go a long way for Patton, who will be competing directly with A.J. Jenkins for playing time.
San Francisco brought in Kassim Osgood, Marlon Moore and Charly Martin as free agents to compete for roster spots. Ricardo Lockette and Hall spent time on last season's practice squad and are back looking to join the roster this summer. Chuck Jacobs, an undrafted free agent will also be in the fold.
Wide Receivers in Camp
Anquan Boldin (6'1", 220 pounds) eleventh season, Florida State
Michael Crabtree (6'1", 214) fifth season, Texas Tech
Chad Hall (5'8", 187) third season, Air Force
Chuck Jacobs (6'0", 178) first season, Utah State
A.J. Jenkins (6'0", 200) second season, Illinois
Ricardo Lockette (6'2", 230) second season, Fort Valley State
Mario Manningham (6'0", 200) sixth season, Michigan
Charly Martin (6'1", 212) fifth season, West Texas A&M
Marlon Moore (6'0", 190) fourth season, Fresno State
Kassim Osgood (6'5", 220) eleventh season, San Diego State
Quinton Patton (6'0", 204) first season, Louisiana Tech
Kyle Williams (5'10", 186) fourth season, Arizona State
Locks to Make the Roster
How players return from injuries will play a key role in deciding which wideouts make the roster. Without injuries, the depth chart would likely be Crabtree, Boldin, Manningham, Williams, Jenkins and Patton. But given the uncertainty around Crabtree, Manningham and Williams, the competition will be heated and wide open among the 12 receivers in camp.
Battling for Spots
The 49ers only used six receivers total during the regular season in 2012. Handicapping the wide receiver battle might be the most difficult of any position on the roster considering the number of variables and players involved.
But aside from the top-five already mentioned. The next men up in the running for roster positions are likely Osgood and Lockette, who are far more physically gifted then their counterparts. Osgood is a former pro-bowler and all-pro selection for his work on special teams, which will likely be a big factor if he makes the roster.
Lockette, Kaepernick's roommate, might be the fastest player on the roster. And at 6'2" and 230 pounds, he has a ton of upside. But Lockette couldn't latch on to a roster spot in Seattle and hasn't done more than break the practice squad with San Francisco, leaving questions about whether or not he has what it takes to digest an NFL playbook and execute with the precision the 49ers need.
Moore is another player looking to make an impact on special teams. The former Dolphin is entering his fourth season in the league and would appears on the outside looking in. The same goes for Martin, Hall and Jacobs, who are all likely to be casualties of the numbers game. But a lot could happen in the weeks leading up to the September 8's season-opener against the Packers.
*Statistics and information from Pro Football Focus were used in this article*