In 2011, the 49ers wide receiving corps was among the league's worst in overall productivity. It was a group that suffered injuries, departures and inconsistency—but there was an overhaul at the position to help jettison an anemic bunch. Arguably a play away from the Super Bowl last season, San Francisco approached the offseason addressing the team's weakest phase.
The departures of Josh Morgan and Braylon Edwards left only Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams and Ted Ginn Jr. from last year's team. But those two losses may have led to much bigger gains, where the 49ers front office brought in serious talent in free agency and the draft.
San Francisco's wide receiver group went from being a lackluster bunch to a highly competitive unit entering the 2012 training camp. The Niners will carry five or six wide receivers to avoid rehashing an issue that plagued them by the end of the season in 2011. But even cutting it down to that many won't be easy.
In the following slides, we will predict the final six wide receivers that make the San Francisco 49ers 2012 team, as well as their slated number on the depth chart. It's early, so the predictions are merely educational which allows us to make a very bold guess to finish off this piece.
The 49ers brought in Randy Moss to be the No. 1 guy who would hopefully stretch the field for San Francisco in 2012. According to Niners camp, the feedback on Moss has been 100 percent positive and encouraging. Moss has awed several of the current 49ers with his presence—that he is both physically and mentally stout.
2011 NFL Head Coach of the Year 49ers' Jim Harbaugh has gone as far to compare Moss to a coach.
Moss has Hall of Fame credentials already and is looking to add a Super Bowl victory to his resume—something that's eluded him in his 14-year career. It appears as if he's got the motivation and that he's bought into the 49er way.
Not only will he make the team, but the Moss acquisition could prove to be deadly.
Michael Crabtree will be a starter in 2012, just opposite the flanker position, which will be held by Moss. With Moss stretching the field, Crabtree can settle in as the No. 2 and do what is more natural to him as a receiver.
Crabtree doesn't have top-flight speed, but he does have solid hands; having him as the split end (X) receiver will allow him to be a chain mover rather than a prototypical dynamic down field threat, which he's not physically suited to be.
The former first-rounder isn't going anywhere, especially after such a strong endorsement from coach Harbaugh, saying Crabtree has the best hands he's ever seen on a wide receiver. Finally able to settle into a position that better suits him, Crabtree could be in for a career year in 2012.
Mario Manningham was the second free agent wide receiver the Niners brought in this past offseason. Manningham is a young, explosive wideout that will be a tremendous slot receiver for the 49ers. He will also spell Crabtree as the No. 2 at times, since Manningham is a better deep threat than Crabtree.
Manningham should see a significant amount of playing time in three-plus wide receiver sets, and will likely see a good number of reps when the Niners need a big play through the air. He adds explosiveness to a group that desperately needed it.
The former New York Giant and Michigan alum comes to the team with playoff experience and a Super Bowl ring, looking to establish himself in the Bay Area and make a new home for himself. If Manningham performs, he could earn a deal to stay with San Francisco long-term.
San Francisco spent its first-round selection in 2012 on Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins. Jenkins was a highly productive player in college and has the physical tools to be the long-term solution at the No. 1 wide receiver spot—however it won't be this year.
Jenkins will likely be used situationally like Aldon Smith was in his rookie year. It will allow Jenkins to use his physical ability to generate plays and get his confidence up early in his career. The former Illinois receiver used to gut defenses with crossing routes in the NCAA, and coming out the slot in the pros, it will be a very natural combination of routes.
He will be able to run a variety of short routes, getting a rhythm with Alex Smith, but intermittently stretching the field with his great speed.
Kyle Williams can be a very good receiver in this league, and I liked his potential coming out of Arizona State University. Williams is a pure athlete and the youngster has heart—you couldn't overcome the collapse he had in the playoffs with all the backlash and return to the team even more determined if you didn't.
When Kyle Williams is on the field in 2012, he will look very good and be eager to make plays. 2011 was supposed to be his coming-out season, but unfortunately all people will remember will be his playoff fumbles.
With all of the new weapons around him, Williams should have a lot less pressure than he was under last year and be able to perform under the radar. The competition at camp will only add fuel to the fire that is currently underneath him.
Bold Prediction: No Ted Ginn Jr.
For the final slide, we'll end with a bold prediction that could come true as training camp progresses.
Ted Ginn Jr. wanted to be a more integral part of the 49ers offense, but his faulty hands were a liability. He has phenomenal speed and is a good open field runner, but he cannot consistently be a pass catcher in this league. And entering workouts, the 49ers were somehow able to sign Andrew Luck's favorite deep threat at wide receiver from Stanford.
Chris Owusu is a better receiver than Ginn, and with the kind of competition San Francisco now has at the position, he could be edged out.
The only thing that would stop this is that Ginn is a top-three return man in the NFL, and the Niners highly value special teams. However, there are other men on the roster with return capability. Beside Owusu, players Chris Culliver, LaMichael James, A.J. Jenkins and Kendall Hunter have experience returning kicks—all dynamic players.
Owusu was reunited with Harbaugh in San Francisco after playing for him at Stanford, where he proved to be a very versatile guy who knew the system, had down field speed and most of all, reliable hands. On many big boards pre-draft, Owusu had a second-round grade. He is a UDFA that could make the team and in the future be a real role player in the 49ers offense.