San Francisco 49ers: Is Anquan Boldin Still a No. 1 Receiver?

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San Francisco 49ers: Is Anquan Boldin Still a No. 1 Receiver?
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The sight of Anquan Boldin is bittersweet for San Francisco 49ers fans.

He played a vital role in the first Super Bowl loss in the history of the franchise, but none of those fans will complain if those same playmaking skills remain on display in his new Niners jersey.

Boldin is a player with an established reputation in the league, with his hands and physical style of play ranking among the elite. With Michael Crabtree set to miss the majority of the season due to a torn Achilles tendon, those same skills that Boldin is renowned for have become even more important to his team. He will now be asked to be the No. 1 option on a Super Bowl contending team.

Now, on the surface, this is nothing new for him. It’s a role he is very familiar with, having functioned as that with both the Arizona Cardinals (before being bumped to No. 2 by Larry Fitzgerald) and the Baltimore Ravens. Here’s the thing, though: Boldin is no spring chicken anymore.

Now 32 years old and entering his 11th season in the league, Boldin has endured an incomprehensible amount of punishment over the course of his career. That is the price he must pay to maintain his reputation as the toughest, most physical receiver in the league.

The inevitable question must then be asked: How much longer can he continue to play his style of game before the rigors of the NFL finally take their toll? Well, when looking at the numbers, the answer might be sooner than what 49er fans might want to hear.

While he was the No. 1 option with Baltimore by title, the numbers don’t quite add up to that billing. In his three years with the team, not once did he crack the 1,000-yard benchmark, with 921 last season serving as his highest total.

The touchdowns have diminished over the years as well. While he caught a respectable seven in his first year with the team, 2010, the last two seasons have brought three and four, respectively. Not quite what you would expect from your No. 1 option.

Many would argue that the Ravens had a dominant running back, Ray Rice, carrying the bulk of the offense. That was more myth than reality last season. Rice carried the football 257 times last season, leaving him tied with Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams (now the Atlanta Falcons) for 13th in the league.

In comparison, Joe Flacco, Boldin's former quarterback, threw the ball 531 times, 317 of which were completed. Those numbers left him at 14th and 15th, respectively, in the league. That’s about as balanced an offense as you can get.

So who is Anquan Boldin? What will his role on this 49ers team be? Is he still capable of being the focal point of a team's passing game?

While I will never claim to be Nostradamus, I will offer my insight as to what I think the 49ers and their fans will receive from Boldin.

Though Crabtree now appears to be the Boldin of old reincarnated, Boldin himself is not who he used to be. It’s not like his magnificent skills are gone. I still expect him to catch anything that hits his hands and break a great many of tackles.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

I also, however, don’t expect him to be as open as much as he used to. Age and wear and tear will do that to a player.

Football is a young man's game, and Boldin is no longer a young man. He’s lost a step. A small step, but a step nonetheless. And for a player like Boldin, that small step is the difference between being great and simply being good.

What I’m saying is that expectations should be tempered. Niners fans are thrilled that they’re getting the Boldin they remember. But the Boldin they remember might not be there anymore.

He will be a consistent, steadying force for the offense. But he also is no longer the indestructible force that he once was. The statistics speak for themselves.

The Boldin that Ravens fans were treated to is most likely whom the 49ers fans will get as well. Totaling about 800-900 yards and five or six touchdowns seems like safe bet at this point in his career.

And for a player who has gone through the most extreme of NFL gauntlets over the course of his career, not much more should be expected. The same qualities that made him a dominant receiver with the Cardinals are what has made him who he now is: a very good No. 2 receiver.

Fans were expecting big things out of Crabtree—and for Boldin to be the perfect complement to the great things he would do. When Crabtree went down, the expectations for what Boldin would bring went up as a result. At this point in his career, those expectations are just not fair, and honestly, not likely.

At this stage in his career, is Anquan Boldin still a No. 1 receiver?

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A 32-year-old Boldin is not a 25-year-old Crabtree. As similar as their games may be, one is hitting a career pinnacle while the other is in the twilight stages.

Boldin has taken far more punishment than your average 32-year-old receiver. Expect the performance to reflect that.

Fortunately for the 49ers, they don’t need him to be great. With arguably the most talented roster in the NFL, they simply need him to be good. And that is exactly what he will be. For a man who has given as much as he has to the NFL, good will be good enough. 

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