The NFL is a delicate ecosystem, which is why front-office management often refrains from engaging in high-risk maneuvers via the transaction wire. However, this year seems to have brought about a change in the tides, as teams have been more daring than ever in terms of upgrading now or setting itself up for the future.
Head coaches and their general managers are really exploring the marketplace again—all the while, they have left emotion at the door and have begun to view players strictly as commodities. With glaring needs and Super Bowl aspirations, it seems about time that the San Francisco 49ers get engaged.
This is a team with a lot of draft capital and enough cap space to make a move, but most importantly, they have a reason to do so.
Jim Harbaugh’s Niners have been stricken with injuries, particularly at the wide receiver position, and it has defined their 2013 season to date: a .500 team with one of the least productive offenses and a star quarterback who has been left hanging out to dry, in what should have been a critical developmental year.
But really, to no fault of their own, things seem to be spiraling out of the 49ers' control.
The offense hasn’t been consistent, and the 49ers don’t have the same defense they did to bail them out. They are no longer the class of the NFC, or even their own division, for that matter. Other teams have made improvements, while San Francisco seems to have gone backward.
One way they can pick up momentum is by remedying the weakest part on the starting roster—the wide receiving corps.
Let’s take an in-depth look at the current situation.
State of the Wide Receiving Corps
When it rains, it pours.
Just as it seemed things could not get worse for the 49ers, rookie wideout Quinton Patton suffered a foot fracture in Week 4, which is going to keep him out for a while. Several medical websites report the type of fracture Patton endured, on the metatarsal bone, takes roughly six to eight weeks to heal, according to NIH.
Even though he was not contributing regularly, he continued to acclimate in this complex system, and it seemed like only a matter of time before Patton caught his stride. Now the 49ers have to start over with someone else.
Not to mention, at the end of the day, they now have one less body at a position group that was already vulnerable.
Then there is Kyle Williams, who, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, was leapfrogged on the depth chart prior to Patton’s injury. Even though Williams is currently the leading wide receiver behind Anquan Boldin, he has not done much of anything to impact this offense on game day.
Moving further down the list, newcomer Marlon Moore was finally deactivated after a flat showing in the first three games in favor of big, fast Jon Baldwin. The results were better, but not by much—San Francisco still has no go-to behind Boldin. Though, the experiment is not over; the staff will continue to get Baldwin reps as they hold out hope for a spark in the passing offense.
Originally, the idea was that one or two of these talents—Williams, Patton, Moore or Baldwin—would be able to do enough in the interim, at least until Mario Manningham returned from his ACL tear. They believed a committee would be able to bring fresh legs and different skill sets to challenge secondary units.
Speaking of Manningham, the veteran pass-catcher still won’t be cleared to practice for another couple of weeks, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. Once Weeks 5 and 6 have passed, he will be able to get involved in weekly preparations, but remember, he is in a tender state and has not participated in quite some time.
That means no minicamp and no training camp. No time spent with new starting QB Colin Kaepernick. So, who knows how much of an impact Manningham will have and how gently he’ll be eased into the lineup.
Barrows also went on to say that Michael Crabtree, who is rehabbing from a full Achilles tear, might not be ready until the first week of December.
If the 49ers want to position themselves for a Super Bowl, or even hope to return to the postseason again, it looks like they’ll need to patch this unit. By using schematic advantages, making a trade, promoting a practice squad player, or other, the Niners need to explore their options before it's too late.
Simply put, it would not be wise to continue dodging this glaring concern.
What Can Jonathan Baldwin Offer?
You hear NFL scouts reference “height, weight, speed” prospects often, especially when it comes to boundary receivers and big athletic tight ends. At 6’4”, 230 pounds, sub-4.5 40-speed, wideout Jonathan Baldwin is exactly that, in what the San Francisco coaches are hoping is unrealized potential.
But like Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and Quinton Patton, he has not accomplished anything in this league.
The difference here is, there is substantial upside (not to take the same bait the Kansas City Chiefs did when they drafted him in the first round in 2011). It is important to note that Baldwin is big, fast and strong, is continuing to grow into himself as a pro and has never played with a good quarterback.
These are all factors the 49ers considered when moving A.J. Jenkins for the former No. 26 overall pick in a straight-up swap.
Perhaps, most importantly is that it takes a few years for a WR to become the finished product, with the exception of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, of course. So, in that sense, Baldwin is still getting his feet wet. But he is further along in his development than Moore and Patton.
We must also consider that with Anquan Boldin and Jonathan Baldwin, Colin Kaepernick may return to his comfort zone, looking at two style receivers who are a carbon copy of the Crabtree-Moss tandem from 2012.
Baldwin is much different from the slot-type receivers the 49ers tried out so far.
He is that long-bodied pass-catcher like Randy Moss was for the 49ers and can serve a similar purpose, running dig routes and shielding the defender on third downs, while also running go’s on first and second down.
This won’t be too much for Baldwin to handle and may become problematic for defenses if he and "Kap" can find a rhythm and establish a timing. It is also on Kap to look his way and give him opportunities to make a play, even if he is covered, because after all, he is a jump-ball receiver touting a 42” vertical.
This should complement Boldin and potentially alleviate some of the weight he’s been shouldering week to week.
Overall, the important thing here is that Jon Baldwin is an unexplored option who might be on the cusp of a breakthrough performance. The athletic tools are there, and he has a big-armed quarterback who can finally utilize his size/speed combo.
The 49ers really need this relationship to develop, then hopefully, they can move on to locking into a No. 3 option.
Exploring Out-of-House Options
Oddly enough, many distinguished players have reportedly been placed on the trading block in 2013.
There has been a flurry of activity and a few eye-popping rumors, largely generated by rebuilding teams, as well as ones by contenders looking for the final components to championship-winning squad.
Right now, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in the midst of ousting quarterback Josh Freeman, per his request, according to a report by ESPN's Ed Werder, and we already witnessed a blockbuster trade that sent former No. 3 overall pick (2012) Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts. There are also a handful of prominent receivers on the block.
Midseason trades appear to be an avenue that GM’s have rediscovered that they can take advantage of; the regular-season team is in front of them, so they can clearly see what it needs, while other teams find themselves in a tough spot with a player and are eager to cut ties, make out with a pick and move on.
As far as teams that could benefit from a trade, the 49ers keep resurfacing as a potential candidate to take the plunge.
Josh Gordon, WR
Team: Cleveland Browns
Weight: 225 pounds
Source: Adam Caplan, ESPN
Pros: In his first game this season, Gordon was targeted a whopping 19 times, putting together a stat line of 10 receptions, 146 yards and a touchdown. In contrast, the cumulative totals of 49ers wide receivers not named Anquan Boldin in Weeks 1-4 only come out to 13 grabs for 112 yards and zero scores.
In a league that is geared toward two-plus wideouts, clearly Kaepernick can benefit from another big receiver who can get open.
In two games, Gordon has 14 receptions, 217 yards and a TD on the season, averaging 108.5 yards per game in 2013 (No. 4 in the NFL). As for his budding career, he recorded 64 grabs, 1,022 yards and six TDs in 18 games played (15 starts), doing so with Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer behind center.
The Browns wideout is physically impressive and can consistently wreak havoc on the football field, making him a genuine starting NFL receiver. He is fearless, can get vertical and will challenge all sorts of defensive backs with his combination of size, speed and effort after the catch.
The fact he is on the market is astounding in this day and age.
Cons: Gordon is not perfect by any means. There are several reasons the 49ers should refrain from making a move for him. First off, he has an injury history, which includes dings to the knee and ankle. Secondly, he has a debauched track record off the field with arrests and multiple failed drug tests.
And, perhaps, the most pertinent issue here is that he is a young up-and-coming talent whom San Francisco would deliberately be adding to a roster full of superstars, many of which need new deals. It would also take a second-round pick or so to bring him aboard, given his status in the league right now.
Kenny Britt, WR
Team: Tennessee Titans
Weight: 223 pounds
Source: Adam Schefter, ESPN
Pros: The 49ers need a receiver with a callus, which fifth-year pro Kenny Britt would be able to provide in spades. Every Sunday, Boldin is the only one, and its hurting this team’s chances each week, really handicapping the quarterback. Britt would give the 49ers another threat defenses have to respect.
Moreover, the plus side about Britt is that the Titans want him out of town and even considered cutting him in the offseason, according to Schefter. He’ll come cheap, bringing more value to San Francisco than he did in Tennessee and may have a chance to revitalize his career, à la Cris Carter when he went from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Minnesota Vikings.
Seeing as how the 49ers netted Boldin for a sixth-round pick, Britt, with all his baggage, he could probably be acquired for a sixth or a pair of sevens. He’d bring a background of 151 grabs, 2,397 yards and 19 touchdowns in 48 games played (30 starts), including a career average of 15.9 YPC.
That is experience the Niners don’t have right now.
On top of which, Britt’s minuscule contract is finally up after this year, via Spotrac, so the 49ers would not be tied to him or be in danger of risking the integrity of the cap by acquiring his current contract. It should also give him incentive to perform since his future is unclear.
Cons: One of the blemishes on Britt’s career to date is that he hasn’t played a full NFL season since his rookie year in 2009, held out with injuries and repeated off-the-field issues. Given the 49ers' current state, missing players for those same reasons, it would be a questionable move to trade for Britt.
He has also been off to a sluggish start this year, recording only five receptions for 43 yards. He was held out of Week 4 versus the New York Jets, listed with a fractured rib, via Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk. While he can technically play, he is not 100 percent, and the Titans prefer to get their up-and-comers chances.
Finally, one of the pros from before is also a con. As mentioned, Britt’s deal is up at the end of 2013, so the 49ers would be unloading picks for a player who will most likely only be a rental—leaving the front office to fish for wideouts in the draft or free agency next offseason with less capital than they would’ve had had they never acquired Britt.
Other Available Options
Dallas Cowboys receiver Miles Austin and New York Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks have also been linked to trade rumors this season, but either of these players would be viewed as sizable investments, while each of them has very real questions about their durability.
General manager Trent Baalke would have to cough up more picks, or at least higher picks, for either one of these guys.
Both are also proven No. 1s that will be holding out for big money deals in the not-too-distant future. Obviously, that won’t happen in San Francisco. If the 49ers are going to pay a receiver, without a shadow of a doubt, it will be Michael Crabtree.
Therefore, these players cannot be considered viable options, as neither would be a smart play by the 49ers front office.
Can San Francisco keep running at teams, and continue throwing to Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin, with the occasional dump down to Bruce Miller? It seems like a rather elementary approach for this team.
Sooner rather than later, that’ll get figured out.
One can argue that it already did in losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts. The Niners had no production on the ground and as a result, nothing else functioned around it. It is easy for defenses to sell out to stop the run, while zeroing in on one wide receiver and one tight end.
The Niners need more firepower and might not be able to endure the window of time without their other receivers without falling behind the eight ball. Then they are counting on a receiver who tore half the ligaments in his knee and hasn’t participated in any full-speed football in nearly a year.
Will that really suffice until Crabtree can return?
According to his recent return timetable, in early December, the playoff picture will have taken shape. And for Crabtree’s return to have any sort of significance, the 49ers have to make the tournament beforehand.
That said; it just so happens that rebuilding teams are currently looking to unload players at a position that the 49ers are desperately hurting at. Fate could not have gift-wrapped this better for San Francisco.
The onus is now on them to make a move to potentially save the season—they have to be a lot better than they are.
Mind you, Pete Carroll’s ‘Hawks are for real and could win the division as is (and they’re getting Bruce Irvin and Percy Harvin back).
Moreover, the 49ers still have to play the Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons this year, with potential trap games versus the Carolina Panthers, Washington Redskins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as well as their underling NFC West foes.
The 49ers' remaining schedule is like a Georges Seurat painting—from afar, it looks very appealing, but up close, it is a mess.
The in-game matchups, locations, traveling and other various elements could affect these games in favor of San Francisco’s opponent. A 49ers team at full strength might be able to come out ahead, but the one on the field now, hurting on both sides of the ball, is at risk of dropping games.
They have to make an attempt to get stronger from a personnel standpoint, or at the least, a heck of a lot more creative and proficient when it comes to game-planning and executing on game day.