The San Francisco 49ers have a deep, talented roster, but if a single positional group is going to be singled out as particularly vulnerable, it's at wide receiver.
Over the past two years, the 49ers have sunk considerable money and resources into upgrading their passing game. When healthy, it does look somewhat imposing. There are a handful of youngsters with promise in Kyle Williams, last year's first-round draft selection A.J. Jenkins and this year's fourth-round choice Quinton Patton.
Mario Manningham has a penchant for making important plays (and he has the Super Bowl highlight film to back it up). Anquan Boldin is a physical wideout who regularly makes difficult catches look routine. Michael Crabtree is coming off a breakout season in which he morphed into a No. 1 receiver.
But Crabtree's torn Achilles will force him to miss at least the first half of the season, and the flimsy house of cards that is the 49ers' receiving corps has started to waver.
Boldin is immediately miscast as a No. 1 receiver. Entering his 11th year in the league, he still shows flashes, but can no longer carry an offense. He was a nice fit as a second option in a physical offense, but he rarely gets deep or stretches the field despite being an effective possession receiver.
Manningham, who is slowly recovering from an injury of his own, flourished as a third receiver with the New York Giants, but had mixed results when offered an expanded role last season in San Francisco.
The young pass-catchers are almost total unknowns. Jenkins failed to come up with a single reception as a rookie, and as a first-round draft choice on a team struggling to find weapons in the passing game, that's an ominous start. Patton has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff, Harbaugh in particular, but wasn't chosen until the fourth round for a reason.
Crabtree's injury throws the precarious hierarchy totally out of whack. Not only did he allow all of the other receivers to fall into their natural spots, he was turning into a monster in his own right.
Once Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith, Crabtree took over the offense. Kaepernick targeted Crabtree 92 times, at least 50 opportunities more than any other player on the roster. And Crabtree made the most of those chances, grabbing 61 passes for 880 yards and eight touchdowns (including the playoffs).
He was a different receiver with Kaepernick. And that's another reason this injury is such a shame: It robs the duo of a full offseason together in which they could get on the same page. There was a feeling that a truly dynamic one-two punch was forming, and now that's shelved for another year.
Perhaps this injury even impedes Kapernick's growth. He was clearly enamored with the talented playmaker; how does he respond now that he's without an elite wideout? At the very least, it's something to keep in mind.
No, there's not a lot of good about this injury. But if the 49ers are to match or exceed last season's success, they'll need to find a silver lining or two now that Crabtree is out. One (or likely all) of the following are going to have to happen.
The young wide receivers mature at a faster-than-expected rate
The easiest answer to replacing Crabtree would be for one guy to step up and replicate his success. That seems far-fetched, so it'll have to be a collective effort. Boldin will probably do what Boldin does regardless of who else is on the field with him. It's the younger players that need to improve.
Jenkins, in particular, needs to show that he was worth a first-round selection. Whatever kept him off the field last season can no longer be an issue. Ideally, last year was spent soaking in the offense and improving as a route runner.
It'd also be nice if Manningham could be healthy for the start of the season. He has the talent to be a difference-maker.
Vernon Davis reemerges
But no one has as much talent as Vernon Davis.
The All-Pro tight end was something of a forgotten man once Kaepernick took over halfway through the season. To be fair, he did still make his share of big plays, but with Crabtree shelved, he is now unquestionably the focal point of the passing game.
VD has shown he is more than capable of carrying the load. It was actually something of a shock to see games in which Davis was not a huge factor in the passing game. If he can replicate some of his bigger games while avoiding the games in which his production nosedives, the 49ers may be able to come close to matching Crabtree's impact.
Davis will be even more important on third down. Crabtree was an absolute maniac in those situations, more often that not coming up with a huge catch or making a short grab and then juking or dragging defenders past the first-down marker. For Davis to really make his presence felt, he'll have to keep drives alive.
Jim Harbaugh finds a way, Kaepernick improves
Harbaugh is the 49ers' saving grace. There isn't a more innovative coach in the league, and I'm sure he already has dozens of new plays and formations to compensate for the lack of a true No. 1 wideout. Few teams could withstand a hit to their leading receiver, but Harbaugh's ability to coach 'em up will mitigate the damage.
Kaepernick's improvement is tied largely to Harbaugh. But remember, he has only started in 11 games. Not even a full season. As impressive as he was last year, there were still big swaths of time when he struggled (at Seattle, big chunks of the Super Bowl). If he is as consistently good as he was in his bigger moments, Crabtree's absence will not be felt nearly as much.
Crabtree comes back before the season ends
Right now, Crabtree is optimistically projected to be back in six months. If he meets that time table, then he's back in time for the playoffs. It will be the equivalent of a midseason trade that netted a starting wide receiver. If the other wideouts manage to mature and excel in his absence, the offense could be truly terrifying with that type of addition.
That's a huge "if" obviously, and a very sunny way of looking at things. The young receivers could easily fail to handle the promotion, the offense could sputter and the Niners could be on the outside of the playoffs by the time Crabtree is ready to go. That's how important he is for the 49ers.
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