The San Francisco 49ers have done a lot of work adding depth to the roster since falling short in Seattle in the conference championship game last January. That work is most apparent at wide receiver, where the team has added both youth and experience to the group to aid Colin Kaepernick’s development as he enters his third year as the starter. All signs are pointing to a more diverse passing game that is likely include more three-receiver sets to take some of the onus off the league’s most heavily used rushing attack.
Let's break it down.
Wide receivers on the 90-man roster
Johnson (trade with Buffalo for conditional fourth-round pick)
Lloyd (free agent, one year, $1.005 million)
Ellington (draft, fourth round)
Reed (signed reserve/future contract)
Wylie (signed to practice squad in December)
It was a less-than-perfect storm that led to a pretty poor season for 49ers receivers not named Anquan Boldin. Injuries, lack of opportunities and defenses’ game plans were all key factors in San Francisco having one of the least productive passing attack’s in the NFL in 2013.
It all started during OTAs when Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles that forced him out for the first 11 games of the season. His return coming less than seven months after sustaining the injury was miraculous in its own right. But he came back and became a productive member of the offense despite lacking his usual explosiveness and top-end speed. Crabtree started in his first game back against the Rams Week 13 and played 43 of 70 snaps before averaging five catches and 68 yards later in three playoff games. Crabtree led San Francisco with eight for 125 in the postseason opener in frigid Green Bay.
Crabtree’s injury, along with Mario Manningham’s gruesome knee injury from the previous December in Seattle, forced the 49ers to start the season with Marlon Moore and Kyle Williams working as the second and third wideouts. Both players were released midway through the season. Williams made just 12 receptions while Moore managed exactly one. In fact, fullback Bruce Miller wound up third on the team in catches (25). Just two of the 49ers’ top-five pass catchers were wide receivers. And San Francisco threw the ball just 26.4 times per game, the second-lowest clip in the league. With their receivers healthy all year, the 49ers might have found a way to win one more game, winning them the division and forcing the NFC Championship Game to be played in San Francisco, and not Seattle.
Manningham started the season on the physically unable to perform list and missed training camp while recovering from his knee injury suffered at the end of the previous regular season. But even when he came back, he and Kaepernick struggled to get on the same page. That disconnect was most apparent in the Week 10 loss to the Panthers, when the 49ers needed a big day from Manningham after Vernon Davis left early with a concussion. It was Manningham’s first game back in nearly a calendar year. He made three receptions, had two drops and was the intended target on the Kaepernick’s last pass of the game, which wound up being intercepted by Drayton Florence to seal the win for Carolina.
Manningham made six receptions over the next four games before being placed back on injured reserve Dec. 27, forcing him out of his second-straight postseason with the team. He returned to the New York Giants this spring on modest one-year “prove-it” deal.
There’s no telling what would have happened to the 49ers without Boldin’s remarkable season. He led the team with 85 catches for 1,179 yards. Boldin and Davis accounted for 20 of the teams 21 touchdown receptions during the regular season (Crabtree had the other, coming in Week 15 in Tampa Bay).
After coming to San Francisco for the modest price of a sixth-round pick in a trade with the Super Bowl champion Ravens, Boldin was arguably the offense's most important player. His yardage total was his second-most since the 2006 season with the Cardinals. Boldin earned the Bill Walsh Award - for “outstanding individual performance” as voted on by coaches - in his first season with the 49ers and received a two-year extension this spring.
Rookie Quinton Patton got off on the wrong foot (sorry) when he suffered a fractured foot in Week 4’s win in St. Louis and didn’t return to action until Dec. 23 against the Falcons. But in the regular season finale he made a crucial 29-yard grab along the right sideline to set up Phil Dawson’s 40-yard field goal to break the tie and give the 49ers the win over Arizona.
Story lines to watch
THE STEVIE JOHNSON DYNAMIC: The 49ers draft-day trade for Johnson came as a surprise after many pegged the team to use one or more of its 12 picks on a wideout - a position considered very deep in the draft class. But by getting Johnson, San Francisco landed a proven receiver that won’t need time to develop as a rookie would. And the team got a three-time 1,000-yard wideout that could presumably step in and start should something happen to Boldin or Crabtree - assuming last season’s struggles are behind him. Johnson is known for his ability to get off the line of scrimmage, which will come in handy against physical secondaries like Seattle's. Of the many signs the 49ers might be inclined to use more three-receiver sets in 2014, the addition of Johnson might be the most striking.
THE LLOYD REBOOT: Bringing in Brandon Lloyd after he missed all of 2013 looked like a misprint initially. But after seeing him perform at a high level during the team’s offseason program, Lloyd instantly became one of the biggest wild cards on the roster. The team is deep at the position and Lloyd doesn’t play special teams, but an argument could be made Lloyd is one of the team’s best four receivers. Lloyd was never known for liking contact, so things could change when the pads come on during training camp. But for now, Lloyd is an intriguing veteran presence that already seems to have gained the trust of Kaepernick. And given how the 49ers haven’t had many sure-handed receivers behind the starters in recent seasons, Lloyd will be a player worth following.
THE YOUNGSTERS: San Francisco used fourth-round picks on receivers in back-to-back drafts in Patton and Bruce Ellington. Both players had good showings at OTAs, while Ellington’s ability to catch balls in traffic from the slot was a noteworthy development. The players have differing skill sets giving the 49ers some versatility for life after Boldin in the coming seasons. The offense hasn’t had a receiver in the “slot mold” since Kaepernick took over as starter in 2012 and Ellington looks like he could be that guy in the early going. Although Patton doesn’t have prototypical size, the team hopes he can continue to develop his knack for getting open in small spaces. But after missing 10 games in 2013, Patton has a lot to prove on the health front.
CRABTREE’S CONTRACT YEAR: It looks like Crabtree’s Achilles injury cost him considerably more than 11 regular season games. It gave the 49ers leverage in contract negotiations. Crabtree is entering the final year of his five-year rookie deal and will be looking to get paid like one of the top receivers in the league. He would have likely entered more serious negotiations with the team this offseason if not for the injury. It’s clear Crabtree wasn’t at 100 percent in 2013 despite maintaining productivity - particularly in the playoffs. Trent Baalke said the sides spoke about an extension this offseason with the 49ers likely coming in lower than Crabtree would like. With Boldin getting up there in age and Johnson needing to prove he’s still in his physical prime after a down season, Crabtree doesn’t look like an easy guy to replace - especially considering the rapport he’s developed with Kaepernick. But if the two sides can’t broker a deal, he could always be franchised next season.
LOCKS: Crabtree, Boldin, Patton, Ellington. It’s awfully unlikely Patton or Ellington wouldn’t make the team unless Lloyd somehow became a player that must get the majority of snaps at the start of the regular season. With that being unlikely - as good as Lloyd looked this offseason - the 49ers would love to develop depth with their new young core of receivers. That means keeping Ellington and Patton around even if they might not be as ready to contribute right away, like Lloyd could potentially.
NOTHING’S ASSURED BUT LOOKING GOOD: Johnson, Osgood. Johnson dealt with a myriad of injuries last year breaking up his streak of three straight 1,000-yard seasons despite the Bills struggling to field a competent quarterback. There’s a great chance he enters the season as the No. 3 wideout with a chance to make a big contribution. But he must prove he’s still worth it. Remember, Johnson was traded from Buffalo in part because of his salary cap numbers going forward. He has three years and $16.075 million on his five-year deal he signed in 2012. If Johnson doesn’t look like a player in camp worth that kind of commitment, the 49ers would have no problem spending that money elsewhere (like on Crabtree or Mike Iupati, who is also entering a contract year). If Johnson looks like the 2010-2012 vintage, he could very well work his way towards being Crabtree’s cheaper long-term replacement if those negotiations sour. Osgood’s chances of making the team remain strong given how well he played on special teams last year. There will be more competition for those special teams jobs in 2014, so he will still have his work cut out for him.
ON THE BUBBLE: Lloyd, Baldwin, Jacobs, Reed, Wylie. As of now, it looks like Lloyd’s best chance of making the roster would come with a serious injury to one of the presumed six receivers we predicted to make the 53-man roster. Or, he could simply out-perform Johnson, although that seems like a long shot given Lloyd was out of football last season. Jon Baldwin has all the physical tools, but hasn’t done much to live up to his first-round draft status when he was taken 26th overall in 2011 by the Chiefs. Baldwin appeared in just seven games last year and made three catches for 28 yards after coming over in the A.J. Jenkins trade. Baldwin was with the team during the offseason program, but he didn’t participate in team drills instead choosing to focus on his conditioning. Jacobs will most likely make his way back to the practice squad for the second consecutive year while Reed and Wylie were brought in as camp bodies who could add depth to the return game.
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