Which 49ers wide receiver will step up in the absence of Michael Crabtree in 2013?
For nearly 20 years, the San Francisco 49ers were privileged enough to have Hall of Famer Jerry Rice render the wide receiver position as an unquestioned dynamic in the Bay Area.
Although, from roughly 2003 on, it has been a roller coaster that has seen first-round busts, free agent whiffs, old-timers hanging on by a thread and mid-rounders that just weren’t quite good enough.
On May 22, after the position was finally believed to be settled following the rise of Michael Crabtree last season, the No. 1 wideout went down with an Achilles tear.
At the moment, the understanding is that Crabtree, the club’s reining 1,000-yard receiver, will ride the PUP list, aiming for a late-season return that will potentially see him back for what may be another postseason run.
For comparative purposes, Ravens LB Terrell Suggs suffered a full Achilles tear in April of 2012 and was activated from the PUP in late October of that same year for Week 7 at Houston, where he finished with one sack and three tackles.
Judging off that timeline, Crabtree, who was injured in May, could very well be ready by late November or December. While each individual is different, this 7-8 month timetable lays the groundwork for what is indeed possible.
However, if he is not ready, San Francisco will not rush him back because a hurried return could push his recovery backward. As they forge ahead, head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff will have to account for a significant season-long void on offense.
Subsequently, this all makes for a rather intriguing storyline in training camp, manifested in the form of an open competition at WR.
And the 49ers will proceed accordingly:
In the 2012 season, San Francisco carried a total of six wide receivers, which, outside of Crabtree, was comprised of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn, Jr. and an often-inactive A.J. Jenkins.
Jenkins, who was the 49ers’ first-round pick last year, did not dress until the team endured injury at the position.
Now, without their star player, the Niners will likely carry six receivers outside of Crabtree—leaving them to de-activate someone or send someone back down to practice squad upon No. 15’s return to the lineup.
In the meantime, and for the purpose of this article, we will focus on what is the re-tooling of San Francisco’s wide receivers and the new-look corps that will storm the field in 2013.
Before we begin, here are a few things to note:
- Since the installation of the new regime, the 49ers have been building an up-tempo spread offense with West Coast elements.
- The wide receivers are mostly unproven, yet all have the ability to reach their ceiling with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
- There are different style receivers competing, but the majority of them are slot-type receivers.
- In San Francisco’s system, which constantly rotates players, the slotted number on the depth chart only means so much. In 2012, Randy Moss was technically a starter, but he only played 40.4 percent of the offensive snaps.
The following piece will provide a scope of the revamped receiving corps, including their styles, backgrounds and what makes them unique. Moreover, it will definitively project the 2013 depth chart at WR.
Between his measurables and relationship with Colin Kaepernick, is Ricardo Lockette the real deal?
Weight: 211 lbs.
Experience: 3 years
College: Fort Valley St.
How He Fits
If Michael Crabtree were healthy, Ricardo Lockette probably would not make the final 53-man roster. However, since one man cannot replace San Francisco’s leading receiver, the third-year pro from Fort Valley State will partake in an attack-by-committee.
With that in mind, the 49ers can benefit from a long-bodied wideout, and Lockette fits that description.
As the listed No. 6 receiver, he will rotate as a complementary weapon, providing a lengthy speed demon with upside when active. According to his pre-draft report from NFL Draft Scout, Lockette officially clocked a 4.34 40-time at the NFL combine (low 4.26).
This is not surprising given his prestigious background as a sprinter.
As a relief receiver, Lockette has the potential to develop into a big-play threat. However, his experience, both in the NCAA and the pros, is limited, which makes him a very raw player.
On the bright side, it means that he has not developed any bad habits, leaving the San Francisco coaches to mold Lockette within their system. As a speedster, he tended to excel at underneath routes, but San Francisco will want to harness that into downfield ability.
As the ideal height/weight/speed specimen, Lockette can cement his place with the team if he shows promise as a vertical threat. This will get him on the field more in 2013 and cause the front office to start thinking about him long-term.
As a dark horse in training camp, he will benefit from his budding relationship with star quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The San Jose Mercury News’ Cam Inman reported that the QB has had Lockette as a housemate for close to a year, during which time the receiver has gotten “round-the-clock tutoring” from No. 7.
For these two, it has been "all football, all the time."
This level of commitment will ultimately yield results to some degree, however, the magnitude of which remains to be seen. In the meantime, the physical talent, environment and chemistry are all working in Lockette’s favor.
Since his inception in the league, there have been questions regarding Lockette’s ability as a route runner, as noted by Chad Reuter of CBS Sports.
Whereas his size and speed are a huge plus, one could easily argue that route-running ability trumps both. A slower, better route-runner would presumably be a more proficient player than a track star with deficiencies in that area.
Mike Wallace of the Miami Dolphins might be the exception to the rule.
In the NFL, timing and the ability to get from Point A to Point B, unimpeded, is too important. Especially in San Francisco’s timing-based West Coast hybrid, the quarterback has to know and trust Lockette’s ability to drive his route and be where he needs to be.
This offseason, the receiver will have to work on the depth of his routes, gaining release off the line of scrimmage, not giving away his patterns, fluidity in and out of his breaks, as well as his overall footwork pre-catch.
And finally, Lockette must prove that he can be relied upon to consistently to catch the ball when targeted. The 49ers will not tolerate drops. With his unsteady hands, former WR Ted Ginn, Jr. saw his role slowly diminish before his eyes.
In all likelihood, due to the need at the position, Lockette will earn a role this season. But as a track star turned NFL receiver, will he follow in the footsteps of Mike Wallace or the recently exiled Ted Ginn, Jr.?
How long until Quinton Patton is a factor in 2013?
Weight: 204 lbs.
College: Louisiana Tech
How He Fits
In any endeavor, talent and hard work is a mighty combination, which is what Louisiana Tech rookie Quinton Patton brings to the table. By now, it has been well documented that he is a worker, having gotten in Harbaugh’s good graces by prematurely arriving in Santa Clara to train.
This is the sort of stick-to-itiveness that will earn him field time in 2013.
There has been a lot of hype in regards to what he can do within this spread system, given his body-type and skill set. As it relates to style, Patton is perfectly tailored to fit San Francisco’s innovative West Coast offense.
With the shiftiness and short-area quickness that he employs to create separation from defenders—coupled with his sure-handedness on the field—Patton is the quintessential slot receiver.
However, the 49ers will mobilize Patton pre-snap, lining him up all over the field to create different matchups. In that light, his game is comparable to Colts No. 1 WR Reggie Wayne, who is a six-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion.
And like Wayne, Patton had become known for his ability to make acrobatic sideline catches, stretching out for the ball when most others would have deemed the pass un-catchable. It shows that he trusts his strengths, which includes incredible focus and persistence.
In his two years in the NCAA, he was one of the most prolific receivers, operating within the Bulldogs’ Air Raid attack. In 25 games played, Patton accrued an astounding 183 grabs for 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns (14.2 YPC) after transferring from Coffeyville Community College.
In that span, he had 16 games with 100-plus yards or a receiving touchdown.
If one were to define his résumé in a single word, it would be: productivity.
Now in San Francisco, Patton will need to put his nose to the grindstone and work to find a role, which is what he has done all of his life. Moreover, with his upside, the coaching staff will closely monitor him as they look to give him more responsibility.
Given the state of the team, Patton will ideally be able to carry a significant enough workload as a rookie—preferably one that gradually evolves over the course of the season. Contrary to first-round pick A.J. Jenkins in 2012, he will learn by doing, and in all likelihood, turn a few heads in the process.
As a consistent performer, Patton is an athlete that brings tantalizing upside.
After being clocked on several occasions at the Regional Scouting Combine and the LA Tech pro day, Patton’s average 40-time ranged in the mid-to-low 4.4s. He also posted a personal-best 37” vertical leap, which would have been good enough for top-five consideration among wide receivers at the combine, tying No. 29 overall pick Cordarrelle Patterson (Minnesota).
Between the evident athletic ability, his steady rise over the past four years, consistent numbers in the NCAA and a pro system that fits his talent, there is a high ceiling for Patton in terms of productivity this year.
Undoubtedly, Patton has a thick playbook in front of him.
This is a complex system that admittedly comes with a steep learning curve. So if Patton is not getting a ton of reps, it is likely not because he can’t run routes and catch the football.
His biggest obstacles will be the general acclimation from college to the pros, which includes the mental absorption of San Francisco’s offense. This will take time, and not only will Patton have to be studious this offseason, but he will also have to get in the weight room.
At the NFL combine, Patton could only muster eight reps of 225 pounds and did not even make an attempt at his pro day. So, even though he is heavier than A.J. Jenkins, it does not necessarily mean that he is stronger.
Jim Harbaugh has confirmed that blocking is “half of the job,” in which case Patton cannot afford to be a liability in the run game. The complete receivers will see the field the most, so he will have to sharpen that part of his game.
After being inactive for most of his rookie campaign, how high will A.J. Jenkins climb on the depth chart in 2013?
Weight: 196 lbs.
Experience: 2 years
How He Fits
The No. 4 slot is better than being inactive.
This will be considerable progress for Jenkins, who may get in the mix as a No. 3 or No. 4 option this season, rotating in the slot and outside the numbers. His role in the offense will evolve as San Francisco attempts to get him significant field time in 2013.
His acclimation will also be smoother if he were bunked right below one of the two starting slots.
As a light-bodied flyer, it will also play to his skill set, allowing him to get winnable matchups in the slot against nickel corners. At this stage, the physical press corners that operate on the boundary are still likely to shove Jenkins around.
On the other hand, within the slot, Jenkins has the potential to emerge as a downfield weapon. Not only will his matchups be more favorable, but he has the necessary speed to get behind the defense and open things up.
Before the NFL draft, he clocked a 4.37 40-time.
That speed, combined with a big senior season at Illinois (90 receptions, 1,276 yards, eight touchdowns), led general manager Trent Baalke to believe that Jenkins had All-Star potential in the evolving new-look offense in San Francisco. The investment of the No. 30 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft proves that.
In an attempt to build his confidence, the 49ers will give Jenkins opportunities to make plays off deep crossers and seam routes. The thrill of hauling in a long-ball for chunk yardage will give him the pluck he needs going forward, and it only takes one connection to ignite that fire.
Intially projected as a Day 2 pick, it will restore his own faith in why he was drafted as high as he was. One big play and Jenkins will begin to understand, first-hand, the long-term fit that Baalke and this front office saw in their draft evaluations.
Ultimately, Jenkins was a vertical threat that gets in and out of his breaks smoothly, bearing the potential to be a lynchpin in an up-tempo spread offense. In a pivotal season for Jenkins, that is a role that is ripe for the taking.
In his first season, receiver depth, lack of upper-body strength and playing within an unfamiliar system kept Jenkins out of most games. As a rookie first-round selection, he missed 13 regular season contests and recorded zero catches versus Miami, New England and Arizona.
In his second offseason, Jenkins has worked toward getting stronger. According to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, the receiver has bulked up already, adding four pounds of muscle to his frame.
This kicked him up from 192 to 196 pounds. And while he’s on his way, Jenkins could feasibly add another 5-10 pounds without losing too much of his straight-line speed that originally landed him in the Bay Area.
Hopefully, his effort to bulk up will aid Jenkins in run blocking and effectively getting a clean release at the line of scrimmage. The 49ers also like their receivers to have grit after the catch, so adding size might give him more confidence in that department.
Moreover, now that he will be getting legitimate reps in 2013, the question becomes: will the straight-line speed translate?
As a player, it is his biggest asset, which makes this a relevant inquiry. He has to prove that he has control of that speed and can, at will, create separation and frequently get behind opposing defenses.
That is his ticket to leapfrog the depth chart to a premier role.
And finally, Jenkins will be dealing with media and fan scrutiny in what may be a make-or-break season. Even though he only participated in a handful of games—leaving him little time to showcase any ability—he felt the heat to perform.
In 2013, it is a “no excuses” situation that will leave him even more wide open to criticism than he was a rookie. He will be active and in the lineup, so there will finally be a real sample to judge his NFL career by.
On the road to recovery, will Mario Manningham be a pleasant surprise in 2013?
Weight: 185 lbs.
Experience: 6 years
How He Fits
The No. 3 spot receiver is where the 49ers begin to infuse a little veteran savvy at the position.
In a group that is relatively inexperienced, Mario Manningham will add solid value as a six-year pro and former Super Bowl hero. However, the lingering storyline surrounding his status is how he returns coming off a season-ending knee injury (ACL, PCL).
Bearing in mind the magnitude and time of the injury (Week 16 vs. Seattle), it initially jeopardized his availability for 2013. Fortunately, the reports surrounding Manningham this offseason have been promising.
He has been feeling good while steadily working through his rehab. The veteran pass-catcher told Sirius XM that he was cleared for running and cutting, which he began in the month of May, per Taylor Price of 49ers.com.
That month, Manningham also appeared on the Jim Rome Show, where he confirmed his goal to be ready for training camp. At this rate, the receiver may even be set to go for Week 1 versus the Green Bay Packers.
Even though there is a chance that he will not be 100 percent early on, Manningham will improve as the season progresses and steadily earn more work. His experience in San Francisco’s time of need will be paramount.
In an attempt to ease him back into the regular rotation, look for Manningham to start out as the third receiver and primary backup to both listed starters. This will be the best course of action for his return, as it allows him the possibility to emerge as a starter by mid-season.
He has the ability and license to be a premier target in this offense.
His biggest obstacle has been addressed, and that is the recovery from an ugly knee injury. Fortunately, the 49ers have the neighboring Stanford Medical guiding them through the process.
If he is back to his old self, Manningham may be declared as a starter a few weeks into the season, if not before.
If his recovery is without any setbacks, it is all upside with Manningham, who has been waiting his entire career for a breakthrough season. He will finally have his opportunity to lockdown a featured role in 2013, all the while creating a window to achieve his first 1,000-yard season.
Mario Manningham now leads WRs catching 80.4% of passes thrown his way this year. Only receiver above 80% threshold— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 4, 2012
Are Colin Kaepernick and Kyle Williams a dynamic duo in the making?
Weight: 186 lbs.
Experience: 4 years
College: Arizona St.
How He Fits
However unpopular, Kyle Williams is the most logical candidate to step in as the No. 2 receiver for the 49ers. Entering his fourth season, Williams is a very real sleeper to win one of the two featured receiver spots.
No. 10 has not been as discussed given the media hype around Jenkins, Patton and Lockette, but he is clearly the most NFL-ready receiver on the roster behind newly acquired vet Anquan Boldin.
Williams, 24, has a collection of attributes that qualify him for the role, including knowledge of the system, physical maturation versus the younger receivers, and perhaps most exciting, the ability to finally see his ceiling.
He is like any other receiver on San Francisco’s roster in that he has been disregarded because the true level of his talent has yet to be displayed. However, with Kaepernick now behind center, the talk of Williams evolving into a Victor Cruz/Steve Smith-type is suddenly a relevant conversation worth having.
Since he was drafted in 2010 (No. 206 overall), he has experienced quarterback changes, a total organizational overhaul, media scrutiny and now his recent ACL injury. It is not hard to see that Williams has been at a disadvantage for most of his pro career.
The fairest way to assess his ability is to look at the brief on-field explosions he has had in red and gold, combined with his game film from Arizona State. This season will ultimately be a fresh start for Williams, who is looking to transition from one spread offense to another.
Tracing his NCAA roots, that type of wide-open system played to his strengths.
With the Sun Devils, Williams was a dynamic vertical player that was both a chain-mover and scoring threat. He consistently flew around the field, making self-sacrificing plays—whether it was making a block downfield or laying out for the ball.
In his senior season under coach Dennis Erickson, Williams finished with 57 grabs for 815 yards and eight touchdowns (14.3 YPC)—all of which were team-highs. This stat line also made him a top-5 receiver in the Pac-10 in 2009.
Coming out of the college ranks, Williams ran a low-4.32, which included another solid 4.34 at his Arizona State Pro Day. For scale, this was not much slower than the league’s proclaimed fastest WR, Mike Wallace, who ran a 4.33 at the NFL combine.
In that regard, Williams’ physical ability has been overlooked for far too long.
In 2012, he only played one-and-a-half games with Colin Kaepernick, with no starts. This was not nearly enough time to establish a rapport, but there is reason to believe that these two could develop a real connection.
First and foremost, Kaepernick often keeps his eyes downfield, looking to take chunks of yards at a time. With his background and physical tools, Williams could thrive in a 16-game schedule with that type of quarterback.
In one of his few reps with Kaepernick, the wideout ripped the Chicago defense for 57 yards on this play from last season, which was a career-long for Williams. This was a glimmer of what could become of their budding on-field relationship.
Kaepernick throws his receivers open, puts the ball on them and generally gives them a chance to make a play. On top of that, he has the huge arm and deep ball accuracy to take advantage of the incredible speed that Williams brings to the game.
There are several elements that make this look like a winning dynamic. As a quarterback and receiver, their styles are extremely complementary, specifically within this offensive system in San Francisco.
As the most familiarized WR on the roster, Kyle Williams projects to plug in at the No. 2 spot, providing a balanced option opposite Boldin. He is a stocky, fast receiver that can make high-concentration catches in traffic (see: vs. Cowboys, vs. Cardinals) and is quick to turn the play up field (see: vs. Rams).
Having a full season to shine with an All-Pro caliber quarterback, Williams is a prospective 1,000-yard receiver for San Francisco.
Of course, the greatest obstacle for Williams is the media scrutiny, which has followed him since the 2011 NFC Championship game. Whether he likes it or not, that will be his legacy until he does something bigger to erase it.
In that respect, his main hurdle may actually be a positive, in that it can be used to fuel him in 2013. It will only make him that much more determined to succeed in what is now a “next man up” situation in the Bay Area.
As an add-on to that obstacle, Williams has several higher, more intriguing investments at wideout close behind him. He will have to fend off a first-round pick entering his second year, a favorite of coach Harbaugh’s and the quarterback’s best friend on the team.
And let’s not forget Mario Manningham, who may have been the No. 2 listed here had Williams sustained the more severe knee injury instead.
Assuming Williams wins the job initially, he will be like every other player in the lineup, playing to keep his job, even during mid-season. Manningham, Jenkins and Patton are all threats to jump up and steal it if they have the proverbial “hot hand.”
Will Anquan Boldin's dominating playoff performance carry over into the 2013 season?
Weight: 220 lbs.
Experience: 11 years
College: Florida St.
How He Fits
It is a foregone conclusion that Anquan Boldin will be the front man for the 49ers in 2013. He is the most qualified player at the position, possesses the most lucrative contract and is currently playing at a high level.
With Michael Crabtree out, Boldin will assume the workload as the No. 1 receiver, while the 49ers rotate secondary receivers around him. The fast, shifty slot-type receivers will complement Boldin's physical, chain-moving style.
He is going to give San Francisco a well-balanced look on the perimeter.
However, Boldin, 32, will have to be prepared to work, as Crabtree played 67.1 percent of offensive snaps last season (675 total, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area). This was a team-high for the Niners, with the second-most consistently active receiver finishing at 40.4 percent (Randy Moss).
According to Football Outsiders, Boldin played 878 offensive snaps for the Ravens in 2012. By that standard, he will not have any issue with endurance over the season, which may include a playoff run.
Furthermore, a new element that Boldin will bring as a wide receiver is his ability as a red-zone threat. This comes with his tendency to attack the football. On a regular basis, he powers through the coverage to secure the catch.
The will also give Kaepernick a security blanket when driving the length of the field.
One of Boldin’s greatest attributes as a pass-catcher is his dependability as a go-to target, which could not have been more apparent than in his last two seasons with quarterback Joe Flacco.
According to a tweet from CSN Baltimore, in his eight career playoff games with the Ravens, Flacco put up a 128.9 passer rating and six touchdowns when targeting No. 81. The 49ers are fortunate enough to add that sort of consistency to their WR corps.
Boldin simply doesn’t drop the football, either, as he is one of the most sure-handed players in the league.
In addition to talent, Boldin will bring leadership qualities to the group, which is invaluable. After playing two years alongside the veteran, a raw receiver like Torrey Smith blossomed into a league superstar.
It is an entity that is difficult to measure, but the ripple effect is often profound.
His league experience and leadership by example are precious attributes to have at the No. 1 spot, like they would be at any position. In 2013, Anquan Boldin’s most important contribution to the team may be his ability to make those around him better.
In turn, with everyone pitching in, San Francisco may field their deepest and most balanced receiving corps in the Jim Harbaugh era.
Within a five-year span, Anquan Boldin played in two Super Bowls on two separate teams that leaned on him as a starter. He has proven to be adaptable when it comes to the game of football.
With that said, the receiver’s biggest hump will be the offensive terminology in San Francisco.
While the concepts are not unfamiliar, the language is entirely different and it will take time for it to become second nature to him. This will not impede his road to the starting role, but it will be something that he has to work through so he can play faster on Sunday.
Other than that, his other challenge will be starting over with a new quarterback at 32-years-old. It took a couple seasons for he and Flacco to start humming, but Boldin will not have that sort of leeway this time around.
He will need to find a rhythm with Kaepernick sooner, which is plausible, considering his similar style to Crabtree. San Francisco’s quarterback was completely comfortable with that type of receiver, so hopefully that expedites the process.
Dylan DeSimone is the San Francisco 49ers' featured columnist for Bleacher Report. A former NFL journalist and fantasy football writer for SB Nation, Niners Nation and SB Nation Bay Area, Dylan now writes for B/R.
To talk football with Dylan, follow him on Twitter @DeSimone80.