Tale of the Tape for San Francisco 49ers Biggest Question Mark Heading into Camp
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Until recently, question marks and the San Francisco 49ers weren’t seen in the same room together.
One could say that the former incompatible couple are now on active speaking terms concerning absent offensive playmakers on the outside.
No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree suffered a devastating torn right Achilles tendon during OTA’s back in May. The 49ers leading receiver and Colin Kaepernick’s most trusted target was lost for the majority of the season in a mere instant—during an innocuous non-contact drill, no less.
What was finally a position of stability and non-concern, wide receiver once again materializes as a huge question mark. It returns to its M.O. as a reason for the masses to doubt the viability of the 49ers as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, a la 2011.
Fortunately, Anquan Boldin is solidified as the new No. 1 WR. His veteran leadership, big-bodied, pass-catching prowess and Super Bowl-winning pedigree qualified him as the indisputable replacement for Crabtree’s spot on the depth chart.
Immediately becoming the go-to target during offseason workouts—and burning Patrick Willis while doing so—certainly doesn’t hurt either, as reported by The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows. The same goes for his versatility as both a flanker (Z position) and slot receiver, though the latter position is a better fit due to his lack of breakaway speed but strength in overpowering smaller defensive backs.
But the pertinent, overarching and be-all, end-all question still remains: Which player will emerge from training camp and fulfill the duties of the No. 2 wideout behind Boldin?
Will 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins step up to the plate in Mario Manningham’s likely early-season absence? Could a less heralded 49er take the reigns? Or might the underappreciated Kyle Williams make a name for himself and silence the boo birds?
Let’s now assess the biggest positional battle in 49ers training camp and evaluate the host of candidates vying for the vacated “X” position at split end.
Note: We will omit Mario Manningham from this competition. He will not participate in any offseason workouts due to his continuing recovery from surgery on his torn ACL and PCL, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.
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What happens to receivers that stand at 6’2’’, possess a strong build at 211 pounds and run a blazing 4.37?
They get noticed.
Ricardo Lockette has certainly been noticed at 4949 Centennial Boulevard by the 49ers coaching staff and beat writers alike. Jim Harbaugh was sure “fired up” over this impressive physical specimen, according to CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco.
After a couple of drops on the first day of minicamp, Lockette made a series of good catches during 11-on-11 drills over the next two days. One such grab went for an eye-catching touchdown, as he snared a laser of a pass from Colin Kaepernick in the corner of the end zone, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
Regarding this training camp battle, three things boost Lockette’s stock over other roster hopefuls.
He has actual NFL playing experience over A.J. Jenkins—however minimal—with his two catches for 105 yards, including a 61-yard touchdown. He rises above rookie Quinton Patton with knowledge of the playbook and an established connection with Kaepernick after rooming and training with him over the offseason, per Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com.
Lockette must overcome his reputation for inconsistency and realize his unique gift as a speedy and lengthy downfield threat—his greatest attribute of all—in order to separate himself in camp.
After a year on the 49ers practice squad and learning the offense, Lockette could very well see blue skies ahead come the regular season.
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It’s not often that receivers from the WAC earn genuine praise within the national spotlight.
Quinton Patton was as prolific as any NCAA wideout over the past two seasons. From 2011 to 2012, he piled up 183 receptions for 2,594 yards (14.2-yard average) and 24 touchdowns. He ranked No. 5 in the nation last year for both receiving yards and scores.
After being selected in the fourth round by San Francisco, he now finds himself at the big boy table.
"In college I used to talk a lot," he said. "Coming out here with the veterans, I've learned to shut up and get it done. I don't really say too much on the field."
Wise choice indeed.
Patton has steadily made his humble presence felt since arriving for offseason workouts. He beat out Perrish Cox in coverage and hauled in a nine-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick during the opening day of minicamp. He also racked up double-digit passes while working with the second-team offense, per the coverage of The Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows.
The first-year receiver that takes offense to the word “rookie,” displayed non rookie-like play throughout the remainder of minicamp after receiving nearly “50 reps a day.” He showcased sure-handedness and great route-running ability.
Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area also notes that Patton has absorbed all possible knowledge from the veterans, such as Donte Whitner and Nnamdi Asomugha, as well as fellow receiver Anquan Boldin.
Patton, though, still faces an uphill climb as training camp approaches. Two wideouts remain relatively entrenched above him on the depth chart.
Speaking of which…
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For those boo birds that enjoy decrying unproductive first-round picks, please hold off for just a second.
A.J. Jenkins was a non-factor for the 49ers in 2012 but heads into training camp as a receiver ascending towards the top of the depth chart in 2013.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman noted before the start of minicamp that Jenkins had produced his best work to date as a 49er.
"(He) just made some clutch catches for us when we were moving the ball, just made plays," Roman said. "(He) did all the right things and made plays when he had the opportunity.”
The key word here is opportunity. Unlike last season—where he couldn’t even digest the playbook, let alone contribute on the gridiron—Jenkins has capitalized on his opportunities.
Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee acknowledged him making “the catch of the day” during the first minicamp workout in which he registered not a single drop. He performed in a similar capacity during the final practice as well. All three days combined for a collective showcase of Jenkins matching his innate physical gifts with knowledge of the offense and where to be on the field.
Most notably, at least in the words of 49ers insider Matt Maiocco, “Jenkins…[has] a slight lead over Patton and Lockette at the X position (split end) in the 49ers’ offense.”
Couple that encouraging sentiment with those already uttered by San Francisco’s coaching staff, and Jenkins appears to be sitting pretty with regards to the wide receiver hierarchy.
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Once again, those who would equate Kyle Williams with those unfortunate mishaps during the 2011 NFC Championship Game, please restrain your contempt for the time being.
The man affectionately known as “KW” has not operated at full capacity during offseason practices because of a torn ACL suffered in Week 12 last season. Williams, though, has nearly completed a full recovery and will be cleared for training camp in July, per CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco.
Said recovery process included “running on his own with a huge chain tied around his waist and sprinting - full speed - the length of the football field,” as seen by 49ers beat writer Matt Barrows. That seems like a near full recovery from our advantage point.
Even before that final minicamp practice, Maiocco conferred the honors of offensive play of the day onto Williams one day earlier. Williams executed a successful crossing route—half-speed drills notwithstanding—and leaped high in the air before making a fantastic one-handed catch.
We realize these may appear as inconsequential developments. But for a receiver that is listed as the starting X wideout ahead of A.J. Jenkins—based on objective observations of offseason workouts—and that is deemed ready for training camp, we believe otherwise.
Williams’ skill set is vastly underrated. He possesses tremendous short-area quickness, runs clean routes, has soft hands and operates with game-breaking ability. He showcased those attributes first with a beautiful 43-yard touchdown grab against Buffalo and again with another deep pass after finding a soft spot in the Bears’ defense along the sideline.
That latter pitch and catch between Kaepernick and Williams offered a glimpse into a fearsome combination that would have developed if not for the receiver’s injury one week later. It’s a small sample size, but one that will surely materialize into season-long productivity in 2013.
Williams will ensure that happens with a strong showing in training camp.
The No. 2 wide receiver job is still up for grabs. But remember that No. 10 is lurking in the background, ready to lock it down.
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