San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has said repeatedly how he expects players to take the biggest steps of their pro careers between their first and second seasons.
That was not the case, of course, with former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins, who was unable to rebound after his zero-catch rookie year with a good showing in last August’s training camp. It led to a trade with Kansas City for fellow first-round washout Jon Baldwin, who was released from the team Aug. 3 leaving San Francisco with nothing to show for 2012’s 30th-overall selection.
And considering one more viable receiving option might have been enough to put the 49ers over the top to win a Super Bowl in each of the last three seasons, Jenkins has symbolized more of a Freddy Krueger-type figure in the Bay Area than the typical first-round bust.
With a replenished receiving corps entering 2014, the pressure on the team’s position has been eased. A healthy starting duo of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree would be the envy of most of the league, while newcomers Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington could create one of the deepest receiving corps the 49ers have had since the 1990s.
That’s without mentioning one of San Francisco’s more promising developments of training camp: second-year wideout Quinton Patton, who bears the burden of being the most recent receiver drafted by Trent Baalke and Co. following The Jenkins Failure.
Patton has routinely been one of the team’s most targeted options in practice. Even with the additions of Johnson, Lloyd and Ellington, he’s been able to standout among the others in the deep group.
"I’m always fighting for a roster spot … Competition brings out the best of every player,” he said. “I love competition."
Patton’s rookie season was derailed by injuries, including a broken finger that prevented him from catching balls during the majority of his first training camp and a fractured foot that cost him 11 weeks of the regular season. Even still, he was able to do more in his rookie season than Jenkins did before getting traded - and he was drafted in the fourth round, not the first.
When Patton got his chance to contribute late last year, he took advantage. With 18 seconds left in Week 17’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, Patton made one of the most crucial plays in the game when he leaped over defensive back Antoine Cason for a high-difficulty 29-yard reception along the sideline to set up Phil Dawson’s game-winning field goal to break a 20-20 tie.
It was easily the highlight of Patton’s three-catch rookie campaign that was more notable for his time off the field than his play between the lines. It was a tough catch, and it was a clutch catch. And it helped his team avoid from some extra black and blues in overtime a week prior to the Wild Card round to open the playoffs in frigid Green Bay.
That catch represented promise going forward for Patton. But in the arms race against the defending Super Bowl champions and the rest of the rough-and-tumble NFC West, the 49ers needed depth at receiver without having any assurance his injury-plagued rookie season was an outlier or the start of a trend.
So the front office added two veterans and a rookie in the offseason, and plan on entering 2014 with a healthy Crabtree after he missed most of last year rehabbing a torn Achilles.
If the moves made Patton feel slighted entering his second season, they haven’t appeared to affect his play so far in training camp.
”I love his work ethic. He’s been able to stay healthy, and that’s the number one thing,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “A lot of what he’s doing I really like and he’s able to do it day-in and day-out. He’s making a very favorable impression.”
It’s tough to argue against Patton’s production when he was healthy during his two seasons at Louisiana Tech. He made 183 catches for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2011 and 2012 before San Francisco took him in the fourth round two springs ago.
His reliability, and availability in the passing game thanks to a knack for getting open, made him appealing to the 49ers, who have struggled to draft productive wideouts more than any other position in recent years outside of Crabtree 10th overall in 2009.
”At the line he gives you a lot of shake,” said cornerback Chris Cook, who has spent much of his time covering Patton during camp. “As a corner you have to be patient when guys are shaking a lot at the line. For most of us at the position it’s kind of hard not to get antsy and want to reach, or want to shuffle one way when he’s giving you those moves. I feel like that’s what makes him a hard cover.”
While adding to the receiving corps makes things less cut and dry for Patton as far as playing time is concerned, he’s found ways to benefit from the deep group. Whether it be Lloyd’s film room habits and route running, Boldin’s ability to fight for balls in traffic or Johnson’s get-off at the line of scrimmage, Patton has used the competition among wideouts to learn skills from those he’s competing against.
Even watching 34-year-old special teams standout Kassim Osgood has helped.
”(Osgood) is probably the toughest person that you could possibly come up and jam because he’s so good with his hands and everything. So I look at Kassim all the time in one-on-ones, watch the releases with his hands,” Patton said.
Osgood has been one of the league’s best gunners in punt coverage because of that ability to beat guys down the field. Learning to beat defenders off the line of scrimmage, more than most others skills, will help Patton against press coverage, particularly against the Seahawks.
”I’m not going to say I’m a big receiver,” Patton said. “But I got a little muscle so I try to use my muscle the best I can.”
The irony there is the fact Patton’s improvement could end up costing Osgood a roster spot - although Osgood’s fate might also be tied to Lloyd, who will have to add enough to value to the offense to off-set him not playing special teams.
Patton’s roster spot appears to be safe, which certainly could not be said about Jenkins this time last season, when his struggles were one of training camp's biggest stories.
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