How will the 49ers replace Brandon Jones?

Brandon Jones spent the first week of training camp showing everybody why the 49ers spent $16.6 million on him in free agency during the offseason, making several terrific catches and using his big body and quality speed to clearly establish himself as one of the top three receivers in camp. Now that he'll miss the next eight weeks with a shoulder injury, what will the Niners do to replace him?

Jones, who had a rather nondescript showing during spring drills after signing with the team in March, began making an impact once the pads went on when camp began at the beginning of this month. He had the look of a legitimate weapon that would help the 49ers as a third receiver and could work in with the starters in two-receiver sets.

But Jones' quick progress in a 49ers uniform screeched to a sudden halt during Thursday's afternoon practice when he sold out to make a diving catch all alone in the end zone during 7-on-7 drills. Jones landed awkwardly and was originally believed just to have a sprain of his right shoulder that would keep him out only a couple of weeks.

But the news was much worse than that when X-rays revealed a fracture within the shoulder that will keep Jones out as much as two months. He figures to miss the first quarter of the season, which means the 49ers will have to erase him from their early-season plans in the passing game.

"I hate that we lost Brandon Jones," coach Mike Singletary said. "He's making great strides, doing a great job. He's going to be out longer than we anticipated. But, we'll work through it. The receivers that we've got here, we're very confident in our guys here. They'll continue to work, and thankfully we'll get (Jones) back after that eight-week period."

But what to do during that eight-week stretch, particularly with first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree still not in camp and continuing to fall behind as the days pass?

The 49ers now must groom someone else for Jones' expected large role in the offense, because even when he is healthy enough to return, it will take him a while longer to work back into the offense and get into game shape.

"We've got wide receivers that (coach) Jerry Sullivan is working his tail off with them," Singletary said. "They're growing, progressing. We're fine for right now. Who steps in at No. 3? I think that's something that Jerry and myself, along with coach (offensive coordinator Jimmy) Raye, sit down and talk about. Thankfully, we have some receivers and I know we have some who are capable of stepping in and doing a good job."

The two leading candidates are the players who spent most of last season in the No. 3 role – seventh-year veteran Arnaz Battle and third-year player Jason Hill.

Battle, the team's leader in receptions among wideouts in both 2006 and 2007, was pushed into a complementary role last year after the team added veteran free agents Isaac Bruce and Bryant Johnson to start on the edges and sixth-round draft pick Josh Morgan emerged as a starting candidate.

But Battle still was a factor in the offense and saw regular action in the receiving rotation over the first half of the season. He averaged a healthy 13.3 yards on 24 receptions – including a seven-catch game for 120 yards in Week 4 at New Orleans – before suffering a foot injury in Week 8. He never played again during the season and was eventually placed on injured reserve in December.

That opened the door for Hill, who had been a non-factor in his young career to that point. But starting in the Seattle game in which Battle was hurt, Hill had at least one reception in every game the rest the season – and three or more in six games – to finish fifth on the team with 30 catches.

Both Battle and Hill were slowed by injuries during spring drills, but Battle in particular has looked strong this summer when given opportunities among the team's logjam at wide receiver.

Now both Battle and Hill will be seeing more work behind starters Bruce and Morgan, and both have showed they can get the job done, particularly in the No. 3 role.

Actually, the player catching the most passes during training camp is tight end Vernon Davis. And while he was going to play a large role in the offense anyway this year, Davis may be used even more as a receiving threat now that Jones is out. Ditto for Delanie Walker, who also established himself last year as a receiving threat from tight end, averaging 15.5 yards on 10 receptions.

"I've been catching a lot of balls and I'm pretty sure it's going to stay that way," Davis said. "We've got a lot of playmakers on this team. We've got a lot of receivers. I'm a tight end. We've got receivers for (replacing Jones)."

Also in the mix for an increased role with Jones out is Dominique Zeigler, who was elevated from the practice squad in November of last season and averaged 19.4 yards on five receptions while displaying progress as a playmaker.

Zeigler, who has added some weight and strength to his self-described "skinny" frame this year, has looked exceptional this summer, using his 6-foot-3 frame to get open and his leaping ability to vault in the air and make tough catches. His leaping grab of an overthrown Alex Smith on Thursday was highlight-reel material.

"It's unfortunate for Brandon that he's going to be out that long, because we would like to have him here," Zeigler said. "But you have to take it for everything that it's there for. So any time my number is called to go out there and keep competing, I try to take every rep as a valuable lesson. I have to go out here and work every day like I did last year and just continue to make plays and hopefully that allows me (an opportunity)."

The 49ers added another receiver to the mix Friday afternoon when they signed Chris Francies, who played for the Green Bay Packers in 2006-2007 and was on the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints last year. The 6-foot-1, 203-pound product of Texas-El Paso has two career receptions for 16 yards.

And then there is always Crabtree, who could be in camp any day – or could continue to sit out for an indefinite period.

But once Crabtree finally does appear, his talent could take over and he quickly could factor into the equation, though that looks more unlikely as each day passes and he falls farther behind.

"It all depends on how his learning curve is," Singletary said. "If I know him, he's working his tail off. He's studying the playbook, but it doesn't really come together until you come out and execute it. Hopefully, when he comes in, the learning curve is not as great as it may take some others. Hopefully, he'll just catch right on and go from there."

But, considering Crabtree missed all of spring drills while recovering from foot surgery, the 49ers can't count on that. So they'll be looking toward their other options at receiver first, until Crabtree sends them notice on the field that he should be included in the discussion – whenever that may be.


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