As far as this 49ers team has come after a curious 1-2 start, it's hard to imagine just how much better the team could be at full strength. Injuries are always a part of the game in today's NFL, but the 49ers seem to have taken their lumps early and often in 2013.
According to the official roster on 49ers.com, 13 players are currently designated on inactive or reserve lists other than the practice squad. This number includes the physically unable to perform (PUP), non-football injury (NFI) and injured reserve (IR) lists.
With so many of these players projected to return in the coming weeks, the 49ers could be dangerous and reloaded come playoff time. As past years have shown, the hottest team in December is usually a better bet than the darlings of the October power rankings.
Even more critical, San Francisco's cavalry will be providing reinforcements to both sides of the ball. As one of few teams actually getting healthier in the later going, the 49ers could find themselves with an uncommon advantage as they welcome players back into the fold.
Projecting The Offense
|Key Offensive Returns for the 2013 San Francisco 49ers|
|LaMichael James||RB||Active (Healthy DNP)|
|Quinton Patton||WR||Active (Injured Since Week 4)|
According to John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle, coach Jim Harbaugh is optimistic for the returns of wide receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree. While Crabtree is still a few more weeks away, Manningham should be activated soon with the release of WR Marlon Moore:
These two receivers combined for 127 catches, 1,554 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012, far and away the best two wideouts on the team.
Expectations should be cautious for Crabtree's attempt to return from a training camp Achilles tear, but Manningham has taken his time to recover and could be better prepared. While both receivers should immediately contribute, time will tell what they can provide as compared to last season.
Even in limited roles, Manningham and Crabtree should assume the No. 2 and No. 3 receiver spots behind Anquan Boldin upon their return. This would bump current contributors down the depth chart, with Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin likely splitting time as the No. 4 receiver.
It's no secret that the passing game has struggled so far this season, ranked 31st in the NFL at the halfway point. While depending on injured and potentially rusty receivers is a risky proposition, it's hard to imagine Manningham and Crabtree providing any less impact than the current crop has.
Rookie receiver Quinton Patton could also provide a boost upon his return from a fractured foot, if he is activated. According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, however, Patton could also be placed on injured reserve to help make room for Crabtree or Manningham.
While rookie running back Marcus Lattimore is still expected to sit out the 2013 season, per Maiocco, the 49ers will not be without added depth at running back. Coach Harbaugh has stated that he wants to get LaMichael James more involved, according to Shea's report.
James has been inactive for six of the team's first eight games, several times as a healthy scratch. However, his speed and skill set could provide a spark for the 49ers on both offense and the return game in the second half of the season.
Fully healthy and better utilized, James could provide the finishing touch for a versatile attack.
Projecting The Defense
|Key Defensive Returns for the 2013 San Francisco 49ers|
|Tank Carradine||DL||NFI (Activated Week 9)|
|Quinton Dial||DL||NFI (Activated Week 7)|
|Nick Moody||LB||IR (Designated for Return)|
Even beyond this list of returning or recently activated players, the 49ers will also be without other key contributors through the end of the season. Cornerback Chris Culliver is on IR following a training camp ACL tear, joined by nose tackle Ian Williams from a Week 2 ankle injury.
While these players will not take part in the playoff push, it serves as even more food for thought on what could have been in 2013.
Rookie defensive linemen Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine have both been activated after early-season reserve designations, with Carradine benefiting from the bye week after Tuesday's activation. Dial has already helped fill in for Williams and other injured players along the defensive line.
Carradine is an interesting prospect for this team, drafted in the early second round after a knee injury late in his college career. His NFL draft scouting profile compared him to New York Giants DE Justin Tuck, with great power and hustle despite such little playing time in college.
Fortunately for Carradine, he won't be asked to shoulder the load this season with the emergence of fellow rookie Corey Lemonier and the return of All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith. The pass rush, completed by linebacker Ahmad Brooks, can rotate effectively to keep this stable fresh and dangerous.
As for Smith's eventual return, Maiocco reports that while there is no established time line, the team is expected to meet with the embattled star in the near future. After enduring criticism for allowing Smith to play in the week following his DUI arrest, expect the team to take a delicate approach going forward.
The underrated addition of this group could be cornerback Eric Wright, who is close to being activated from NFI, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com. While the team insists that Wright will have to work his way up the depth chart, any additional secondary depth should help against the heavyweights of the NFC.
The bye week will also offer a chance for ailing starters to rest, including linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey. All dealing with nagging ailments, improved health from these key players will only solidify this improving defense.
With healthier players and all of these returns, the 49ers defense should be a force to be reckoned with by the late weeks of the season. Key games against New Orleans and Seattle are looming, and the new faces could arrive just in time to boost this team forward on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately, the 49ers may never get to full strength this season, but how many teams can actually make that claim? Every week will get San Francisco closer and healthier to gain ground in the race.
After all, reinforcements are never a bad thing, and the 49ers will have plenty for the playoff push.