Projecting Roles for San Francisco 49ers Returning from Injury
Handicapped by injuries and dropping below .500 in the first time under the new regime was a wake up call for the defending conference champions, which managed to turn things around in a big way. The 49ers are currently riding a four-game win streak, heading into Week 8 against a winless Jacksonville Jaguars team before they enter the bye.
The team has also overcome the most challenging block of their schedule. After facing four playoff teams in the first five weeks of the season, the Niners' remaining opponents have a cumulative record of 24-34 this year (.410 winning percentage).
So they are very much in a position to keep winning.
But perhaps the most intriguing of all the variables out there—all the things that are going their way—is the fact that this team is about to receive a wave of reinforcements. The incoming talent is no joke, and from a positional standpoint, the 49ers will be receiving help all over the field.
It may alter the trajectory of this team, rocketing them in the second half of the season and potentially into a dominant postseason run.
In this piece, we will discuss the forthcoming roles and impact of expected players, while also loosely gauging a timeline for return based recent information from the team and local beat. Mind you, given the ambiguous nature of each individual return, these projected dates are nothing more than educated guesses.
The 49ers have a slew of directions they can go in for each one, which includes injure reserving the player for the remainder of the year if they are not ready to be activated in the allotted 21 days after they begin practicing. And for some, if they are activated, it does not necessarily mean they will be involved on Sunday.
Furthermore, with the activation of six key players to the 53-man roster, certain others will inevitably be let go. That being the case, we will also delve into some rough projections of players that will likely be waived/injured when the following players are called up from their respective injury lists.
Here is a detailed breakdown of the cavalry coming to San Francisco's aid for the second half of the 2013 season.
Special thanks to Bleacher Report’s Lead Writer for Sports Medicine, Will Carroll, for providing the latest medical analysis on the 49ers. Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise.
Mario Manningham, WR
At the team’s Wednesday practice in Watford, England, 49ers veteran wideout Mario Manningham scored a touchdown while running with the first-team offense, via Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. Even though it does not sound like a major occurrence, it was newsworthy.
Returning from a grisly knee injury—having torn two of four ligaments—this was a big deal for the receiver.
Needless to say, his score during the scrimmage was well received. Branch conveyed how fired up the team was over the practice play by Manningham, accentuating their eagerness to get him back in the lineup on game day.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the offensive line and the defense, in particular, have all felt the effects of a hollow receiving corps. They also know what Manningham is capable of, which is the reason they want him back as soon as humanly possible.
But can he be the savior? Will he finally provide a viable option outside of Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin?
And coming off injury, how long will it take?
The 49ers are depending on him, especially since Michael Crabtree is at least a couple weeks behind his fellow wideout.
And not to be the bearer of bad news, but if Crab and Manningham are not able to go hard in this upcoming stretch and potentially into January—if anything is irregular about their game—this team might not make it too far.
They’ve limped by so far, essentially using two players in Frank Gore and Vernon Davis to win five football games. That is not sustainable going forward.
Luckily, everything circulating about Manningham has been optimistic. His headway has been steady, and he seems to be on the brink of being activated. The six-year pro is now working with the first-string offense again, which is a very good sign that he is close to returning.
Remember, those are valuable reps that the coaches are stripping from other receivers that are locks to be active this weekend.
Now, San Francisco is meticulous, and the team will want to ease him back, but odds are the 49ers slide Manningham into that starting spot opposite Anquan Boldin right away, at least until Michael Crabtree returns. Hopefully that puts an end to the failed Kyle Williams/Jon Baldwin experiment.
And even if he starts, the coaches can still monitor his snaps.
Once he is activated, he projects to be a top-three wideout for the rest of the season, providing San Francisco with an experienced slot receiver and capable deep threat.
To Be Waived: Marlon Moore, WR
Tank Carradine, DT
You’re telling me that a team sitting near the top of the National Football Conference at 5-2, with quite possibly the most well constructed defensive unit in the league, is going to add a top-five draft talent to the lineup? As unjust as that sounds to the rest of the NFL, it seems to be the scenario.
Former FSU pass-rusher Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, whom San Francisco selected early in Round 2, appears to be nearing a return after sustaining a season-ending knee injury in a game last November, via ESPN.
Once upon a time, draft guru Matt Miller of Bleacher Report had Carradine as the No. 5 overall prospect in the entire 2013 draft class, proclaiming him the top end on the board and the second-best defensive player available.
Though all drafted high in the first round, such defensive linemen as Dion Jordan, Ezekiel Ansah, Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei and even his Florida State teammate, Bjoern Werner, were not as highly regarded from a talent perspective. In today’s league with players like Justin Smith and J.J. Watt, a hybrid like Carradine has a higher ceiling than all of them.
Though, obviously it was the ACL tear that caused him to drop in the draft.
In the first round, not only are teams looking for top-tier talent, but they are also actively seeking players to contribute right away—most likely as a starter. Carradine was not able to suit up on Day 1 or even partake in training camp, but he should be healthy enough to play this season.
Now, midway through 2013, coach Jim Harbaugh said, “The doctors have no restrictions on [Carradine],” per the team’s official website.
Bleacher Report’s injury expert, Will Carroll, recently provided his expertise on the rookie, saying, “I've been a bit surprised they've ‘redshirted’ him. Unlike with [Marcus] Lattimore, Carradine was expected to be ready to go.”
Intrigued by this, Carroll dug a little deeper, projecting an up-to-date status of where he might be at and how his adjustment period may go:
At the 10/11 month mark, he should be very near maximum medical improvement. What's tougher to tell is where his confidence in the knee is. That comes later and often takes an "aha moment" to really click over. I remember seeing Deuce McAllister a couple years back.
He'd had his ACL done and was running north-south for the first couple weeks. Effective, but not his normal style. Some LB— always think it was Urlacher but not sure—was about to crush him and instinctively he cut. As he was running down the sidelines, you could see in his eyes he just realized what he could do.
So, as Carroll reports, Carradine should physically be ready to rock and roll, and if there are any challenges ahead, it will be from a mental perspective. But as he points out here in the example with ex-NFL running back Deuce McAllister, one big play can change all of that.
Moreover, Carradine has emoted a strong sense of self-confidence, particularly in his ability to both acclimate to the NFL game and cut and pivot on that knee again. “Speed-wise, I feel like myself again,” Carradine told 49ers.com senior writer Taylor Price in early October.
“It won’t take long [to adjust],” he said. “Usually after the first couple of plays, once you get the first series, you get the feel for everything—how fast the tempo is—how fast everything is going to be.” It also helps that during his time off the field, he has been able to learn the nuances of the system.
That being said, it is encouraging to see how other defensive rookies like free safety Eric Reid and linebacker Corey Lemonier have been able to step in. They’ve had to learn on the fly, and they’ve still found ways to contribute. And still, neither has had near the mental reps as Carradine, who was also built up to be a better defensive player than both of them.
If he’s fully healthy, he is knowledgeable and talented enough to hit the ground running and impact this unit.
Now, despite being shorthanded, the 49ers still have the No. 8 overall defense in the league right now. They’ve had a top-rated unit for the duration of the year, even after not having Chris Culliver and losing Aldon Smith and Ian Williams. They’re very good, but Carradine can make them better.
A shoddy sack total of only 17 on the season currently has San Francisco in the middle of the pack, so there is room to improve. Thankfully, that is Carradine’s specialty. Ideally, he’ll be eased into the lineup, elevate this pass rush late in the season and provide a boost going into the playoffs.
So, even though the 49ers squad has been burning offenses, the addition of Cornellius Carradine could help them set teams ablaze.
My ranking of Tank Carradine (DE-FSU) may surprise people, but once healthy I see a dominant pass rusher. He's top 5 for me.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) April 5, 2013
Potential Return: Week 10 vs. Carolina Panthers
Eric Wright, CB
Veteran cornerback Eric Wright was a late addition by the team this offseason.
After bidding for him on the trade market—in a deal that was spoiled by a failed physical—the 49ers were able to sign him outright after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released him, per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.
With cornerback Chris Culliver done for the season, San Francisco was eager to add bodies.
However, they knew from the get-go that Wright would not be ready until late, if at all.
But along with Tank Carradine and Mario Manningham, the 49ers new corner got back into the swing of things, recently partaking in practice sessions. There have been no concerns over his health at this point, as his obstacles merely have to do with adapting to a new defensive system.
49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio opened up about Wright recently, via Bill Williamson of ESPN:
He’s getting better and better. And [we] put him in there yesterday with some of the defensive stuff. Last week he primarily did the scout-team work. This week we’ve put him in there with the defense ... few snaps here and there. And he’s done well.
Obviously he’s not comfortable in the system yet. But he’s a guy that we think, once he kind of grasps it, he’ll grow leaps and bounds quickly because he’s played in the league. He’s done a lot of the things we do. He just has to learn to work with our guys and our lingo.
This is a positive outlook from Fangio, who tends to tell it like it is.
From what we can gather, Wright may very well be activated to the 53-man roster, but only to take over the No. 6 cornerback spot on the game day inactives list. The inkling is that he’ll be called up, upon which time the other free-agent corner, Nnamdi Asomugha, may be shown the door.
To build on that point, the fact that Wright has begun practicing—and that there is a 21-day period to activate said player once they’ve started—shows that the 49ers are looking to get him involved. Meanwhile, Asomugha has not been active, even though he is healthy, which exhibits a lack of trust.
Fangio is going to give Wright a chance, though. He is a Bay Area native the team was ready to cough up a pick for. They also know that to have the 28-year-old defender as a fourth or fifth cornerback option late in the season—and possibly into the playoffs—could be key to a strong run.
The Niners are aware that they are bound to see the best quarterbacks.
San Francisco still has Drew Brees and Russell Wilson on their regular season schedule, and there is a chance they run into them both again later down the line. That said, this is a low risk, high reward move by the 49ers to bulk up the secondary, which was exploited in the playoffs last year.
49ers CB Eric Wright on track to get on field soon but still not comfy in system. Taken snaps on regular defense (& slot); scout-D last wk— Cam Inman (@CamInman) October 24, 2013
To Be Waived: Nnamdi Asomugha, CB
Potential Return: Week 10 vs. Carolina Panthers
Michael Crabtree, WR
No commentator, beat writer or network analyst has been able to talk about the San Francisco 49ers this year without droning on about how depleted and unproductive the wide receiving corps has been.
It has been one of the most notorious bylines for the team this season outside their rivalry with Seattle Seahawks, of course. And there is no defending it. Outside of No. 1 wideout Anquan Boldin, the position group as a whole continues to lay goose eggs week to week.
“Atrocious” is probably the best word.
But the 49ers had an idea that they’d have to endure a trial period like this. The backbreaker came early on, in May 2013, when Mike Garafolo of USA Today reported that Niners wideout Michael Crabtree underwent surgery after suffering a full Achilles tear in organized team activities in Santa Clara.
This was a significant kick in the gut before the season even got going. The 49ers were not even in training camp yet, and that is who they lose? He is the mecca—Crabtree is everything for this passing offense, coming off a season where the ballclub saw its first 1,000-yard receiver in 10 years.
Perhaps the worst part was that this injury stripped Colin Kaepernick of his No. 1 target and security blanket. From Day 1, it was evident that these two had a very potent chemistry on the field, and in a crucial developmental year for the 49ers quarterback, Kap did not have Crabtree to lean on.
Now, there is concern regarding whether or not they will able to pick up where they left off.
Will Michael Crabtree be the same and can he pitch in once he’s back on the field?
“I have hopes that [he] can contribute,” said Will Carroll of Bleacher Report. “I hate projecting things, but we've seen similar players quickly come back to level and they'd be an improvement over available talent if they're close.”
Carroll is spot on in his assessment.
Just last year, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs had the very same injury and was able to return late in the season and help push his team over the top in a triumphant Super Bowl run. Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Da’Quan Bowers also came back from the Achilles tear.
Then there are players like Adrian Peterson and Darrelle Revis, who suffered devastating knee injuries, that also spring to mind.
More often than not, the ACL seems to be the scarier of the two, as it also requires a longer recovery. So comparing the magnitude of the injuries, as well as seeing what is possible, Crabtree can very well reinsert himself in the lineup and get back to his play-making ways.
Once he returns, it will likely push Mario Manningham to the third spot (slot), while he takes over opposite Anquan Boldin.
Even if Crabtree is not making plays himself, his presence alone is going to create opportunities for a lot of the other players. Boldin, as well as tight end Vernon Davis, are going to discover that they are seeing much more favorable matchups. Defenses won’t be able to key in on them.
To Be Waived: Kassim Osgood, WR
Potential Return: Week 13 vs. St. Louis Rams
Quinton Patton, WR
In Week 4 at the Edward Jones Dome, rookie wideout Quinton Patton became the next sheep to be plucked from the herd, succumbing to the big bad wolf that is the injury epidemic.
Not long after returning from a broken finger in training camp, Patton fractured the metatarsal bone in his foot versus the St. Louis Rams, via Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com.
Given the nature of the injury, which stipulates roughly a 6-8 week period to rehab (per National Institute of Health), it will sideline him until late in the regular season. This was quite a blow, seeing as how the All-Star from Louisiana Tech looked like a temporary solution to the void at the wide receiver position.
He received a great deal of hype coming out, and is perceived as one of the big steals of the draft.
Stylistically, Patton is a wiggly point guard type, perhaps better suited in the slot. He is a real mover and a shaker that is intuitive in the sense that he has a very good feel for space. Even though he is not bizarrely tall or fast, Patton knows how to create separation and get open.
This is why he was pegged as a natural.
However, once the regular season began, Patton only had four games with zero starts and one target to prove his worth. Admittedly, that is not a whole lot to work with.
Now, looking at a prolonged return, you have to wonder if the 49ers will bring Patton back at all this season. He is behind Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree in his recovery, while they’re likely to provide the offense with more than enough firepower heading into a potential playoff run.
This is a run-first team, after all.
Also, the Niners are unlikely to waive Jon Baldwin or Kyle Williams midseason, so they’ll be left to sacrifice depth elsewhere. That means dropping a special teamer or a backup at a position that otherwise might need the help. With Patton being the last projected returnee, it’ll be tough to get him a spot.
This should be the hardest decision the staff will have to make because of the postseason implications.
If they decide to cut one last body and bring Patton back, hoping for some late-season magic, he will be the No. 4 or 5 wide receiver behind Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams or Jon Baldwin.
The only #49er who did not practice Thursday was WR Quinton Patton, who is coming back from a broken foot.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) October 24, 2013
To Be Waived: Nate Stupar, LB
Potential Return: Week 14 vs. Seattle Seahawks
Note: Patton has been inactive; not on an injury list. The 49ers will not have to waive anyone to activate him once he's healthy. However, the above slot is for continuity purposes and to provide another name that is at risk of being waived for a returning player.
Aldon Smith, OLB
Aldon Smith had an NFL debut that rivaled fabled Hall of Famers from a diehard era of pass rushers. Whether it was Lawrence Taylor or Bruce Smith, the comparisons never ceased to be flattering. But hey, 38 sacks in 35 games played with only 19 starts will turn a lot of heads and get people gabbing.
That is an all-time pace for the position.
But as fast as this rush to superstardom transpired, it came to a screeching halt. Now, it seems more and more people are talking about what Smith is doing off the field, rather than on it.
Weapons charges and a recent DUI have suddenly clouded his future in the league, via Tracey Kaplan and Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. Regrettably, it was quite the fall from grace for the 24-year-old All-Pro linebacker.
But he is working toward personal improvement, having taken a leave of absence from the team and being placed on the non-football injury list while he seeks treatment.
Harbaugh said he thinks Aldon Smith will be back in the next couple of weeks.— Matt Barrows (@mattbarrows) October 20, 2013
After being on hiatus for a quarter of the season, the Niners are now beginning to talk about a potential date of return. The “couple of weeks” sentiment from Harbaugh, while not official, was encouraging for fans, since it suggests that he may be back following the Week 9 bye.
There is also the conviction that this defense can keep chugging along, with or without him. Since he’s been out of the lineup, they’ve adapted, going on to win games with strong unified defense. They’ve also benefited from big plays.
In three games in 2013 when Aldon Smith was starting at right outside linebacker, the 49ers defense let up an average of 28 points per game. In the four games since his departure, this unit has cut down that average by more than half, allowing 12.75 points.
Granted, the schedule softened up a little.
Per NFL Team Rankings, the 49ers are also fifth-best defense in the league when it comes to third-down conversion percentage, stopping the opponent 66.33 percent of the time. So even though they are not racking up the sacks without him, this unit is still finding ways to stop teams and get off the field.
San Francisco is also seventh best in points allowed, which is the mark of a great defense.
This is impressive considering the 49ers lost an entire dimension of their defense once Smith took his leave of absence. So whenever he does come back, it’ll just give this defense—which is already rolling—a huge shot in the arm.
He should reclaim his starting job opposite Ahmad Brooks, reinstating that famed Texas stunt on the weak side with Justin Smith. The other thing to look at going forward is having Aldon Smith on the field at the same time as new pass-rush sensation Corey Lemonier.
Most Sacks since 2011: 1. Aldon Smith - 37 2. Jared Allen - 35 3. DeMarcus Ware - 35 4. Von Miller - 30 5. J.J. Watt - 29— NFL Stats (@NFL_Stats) September 26, 2013
To Be Waived: Jermaine Cunningham, LB
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