San Francisco 49ers: Colin Kaepernick Will Thrive Despite Weakened WR Corps
All Colin Kaepernick did in 2013 was take away the starting job from a quarterback who had a 104.1 passer rating and lead the San Francisco 49ers all the way to Super Bowl XLVII. Seven regular-season starts and three more in the playoffs, and all the guy did was make 31 other teams wonder how they possibly missed on him.
All he did was finish with a 98.3 QB rating of his own, which would have ranked him above Drew Brees, Matt Schaub and Eli Manning, had he thrown enough passes to qualify officially. All he did was was set an NFL record for rushing yards in a playoff game and dethrone a former league MVP on his march through the playoffs.
Of course, this was all in 2012. Every year is different in the NFL, a league where parity is a foregone conclusion, year in and year out.
With one look at the 49ers' current wide receivers, you'd understand why expectations for Kaepernick have been tempered entering this season. But it seems that all Kaepernick has done is make a career out of proving people wrong, albeit a short career at that.
Therefore, there's reason to believe that the 49ers' young quarterback can still put together a solid season in 2013, and perhaps even better than that. To do that, he'll need to get the most out of his surrounding cast, or at least what's left after an injury-plagued offseason.
Injuries and Additions
According to Taylor Price of 49ers.com, wide receiver Michael Crabtree hasn't missed a beat in his recovery from an Achilles injury in May but will still likely start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.
In that same report, it was also announced that wide receiver Mario Manningham has been officially designated for the PUP list as he returns from a late-season knee injury.
What does this mean for San Francisco? Neither player is eligible to play until Week 7 at the earliest, although Crabtree will most likely be out until much later in the season given the timing of his injury.
So far, rookie Quinton Patton and four-year pro Kyle Williams have also been held out of all preseason action, although both suited up for Friday's game versus Kansas City. Williams has stated that he will finally return next week after a midseason knee injury in 2012, while Patton has resumed catching passes after a left hand injury earlier in camp.
And injuries aside, according to the team's website, the 49ers shipped 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins to the Chiefs on Monday in return for another former first-round wideout, Jon Baldwin. The 6'4", 230-pound wide receiver comes with a lot of potential but without much production in two NFL seasons.
The 49ers also added Anquan Boldin in a pre-draft trade with the Baltimore Ravens, which could be the one saving grace of the offseason for this position. Veteran tight end Vernon Davis returns coming off of a torrid postseason, and he'll need to keep up that pace for Kaepernick to succeed.
The Crabtree Factor
The fact of the matter is, Crabtree accounted for way too much of the 49ers' passing game last season.
Kaepernick clearly relied on his go-to-receiver, throwing to Crabtree on 39.6 percent of his routes, according to Mike Sando of ESPN.com. Only Chicago's Brandon Marshall accounted for a higher percentage in the NFL over the seven weeks that Kaepernick started.
Per that same ESPN report, Kaepernick threw eight touchdowns and only one interception when targeting Crabtree last season, against one touchdown and four interceptions to all other wide receivers. Simply put, you don't replace production like that in the NFL. You adapt.
Reducing the reliance on one target should theoretically make the offense more unpredictable and help Kaepernick develop across the board. The biggest wrench in this line of thought is the inability to keep a consistent lineup on the field.
However, if Williams and Patton are practicing and healthy for Week 1, preseason reps won't factor in all that much. After all, Kaeperick has only seen two series' worth of action in the first two preseason games.
Kaepernick won't have Crabtree, but he still possesses a wide array of targets in this offense.
Davis was a critical player in last year's playoff run, where Boldin's play was indispensable to Baltimore's championship victory. These two provide a great one-two punch in the passing game, but the real concern comes after them.
Beneath Davis and Boldin lies a lot of untapped potential. Baldwin brings the ability to be a vertical threat, and his salary numbers all but guarantee him a roster spot. He hasn't produced much in his NFL career, but a change of scenery and improved QB play could do him a lot of good.
Williams has also shown flashes in his short NFL career, with the speed and elusiveness to be an effective slot receiver and deep threat. Before his injury, both Kaepernick and Alex Smith had found Williams on long passes, proving his ability to stretch the field.
Patton will have to overcome inexperience and injury to see the field but will most likely find playing time simply through the numbers game. However, Patton had a prolific college career, overshadowed at small Louisiana Tech.
If he can hit the ground running, the 49ers have found a bona fide fourth-round steal.
The Running Game
It's often said that a quarterback's best friend is the running game, and Kaepernick has the benefit of a great one. By the numbers, the 49ers boasted the fourth-best running game in the NFL last season in terms of rushing yards, even after losing backup running back Kendall Hunter midseason.
But now, Hunter appears poised to return to action soon after being activated from the PUP list last week. With Hunter, Frank Gore and LaMichael James all running at full strength, this three-headed monster could do a lot of damage on the ground for San Francisco.
Not to mention, Kaepernick's own ability to tuck and run adds another dimension to this offense.
And let's not forget, Gore is no slouch in the passing game either, five times in his career surpassing 40 receptions in a season. B/R's own Dylan DeSimone also credited James for Darren Sproles-like potential as a receiver, which could create a great weapon for Kaepernick on third downs.
Colin Kaepernick has the weapons available to put together a great season, even with the absence of his most reliable target from a year ago. With a full offseason and training camp as starter under his belt, Kap will greatly benefit from last year's experience going forward.
With an established chemistry with Davis and a quick-developing rapport with Boldin, Kaepernick should be able to utilize his top weapons well enough. If Kaepernick can properly spread the ball to a list of possibly underappreciated targets, he could break out with a huge season.
Considering head coach Jim Harbaugh's penchant for the running game and the 49ers' backfield depth, Kaepernick won't have to shoulder the load to keep the offense running. Even still, expect Kaepernick to flirt with 4,000 yards passing and 25 to 30 touchdowns, given the team's total numbers last season versus the playbook opening up once Kaepernick took the reins.
After all, all Colin Kaepernick did in 2012 was make plays. If he does the same in 2013, he could go a long way toward establishing himself as an elite NFL quarterback.
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