How Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree Can Open Up 49ers Passing Attack

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How Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree Can Open Up 49ers Passing Attack
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 6-2 San Francisco 49ers enter the second half of the regular season with plenty of room to improve their passing attack, which ranks last in the NFL in yards per game.

The return of Mario Manningham is just what the doctor ordered.

The sixth-year receiver should immediately start alongside wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, giving the 49ers a third aerial threat.

And the Niners will be even more dangerous when wideout Michael Crabtree returns. Crabtree practiced on Tuesday for the first time since he tore his Achilles in May, and head coach Jim Harbaugh said a return to game action in a few weeks is "doable," per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Let's take a look at how the two wide receivers can change San Francisco's passing attack.

 

Manningham: A Sure-Handed Target

Assuming Manningham is close to his form from the first five seasons of his career, he should be a massive upgrade over all of San Francisco's currently healthy wide receivers not named Boldin. 

So far this season, the Niners' other wideouts have caught 16 passes on 37 targets for 142 yards.

In just 12 games last season, Manningham had 42 catches on 57 targets for 449 yards. His target-to-catch percentage was fourth-best in the league, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), mostly because he dropped just one pass. 

2012 Qualified Leaders in Drop Rate
1. Jason Avant PHI 53 catches 0 drops 0 percent drop rate
2. Percy Harvin MIN 62 catches 1 drop 1.6 percent drop rate
3. DeSean Jackson PHI 46 catches 1 drop 2.1 percent drop rate
4. Mario Manningham SF 42 catches 1 drop 2.3 percent drop rate

Pro Football Focus

Manningham spent most of his first season in red and gold catching short and intermediate passes. Randy Moss was brought in to take the top off of defenses and received most of the deep targets, which contributed to Manningham averaging just 10.7 yards per catch.

However, his average was trending upward after Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as San Francisco's starting quarterback. 

In the last three full games Manningham played in, he had 12 catches on 13 targets for 151 yards (12.6 yards per catch). This included a 37-yard reception against the Bears and a 40-yard catch against the Saints.

At worst, expect Manningham to be a productive possession receiver who takes some defensive attention away from Boldin and Davis.

At best—and this is reliant upon whether Manningham is as fast as he was pre-injury—he could be a deep threat, which was a role he filled in his career as a New York Giant. Most notably, he made this catch against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, but he also had 27 games in which he at least one 20-plus-yard reception in his final three seasons in New York (playoffs included). 

Manningham can also line up in the slot (particularly when Crabtree comes back) and attack the deep middle of the field like he did here (my apologies for a reminder of this game, 49ers fans):

 

Crabtree: All-Around Threat

A healthy Crabtree would have an enormous impact on San Francisco's offense.

As 49ers fans remember all too well, Crabtree went on a torrid run that started at the end of the 2012 regular season and extended all the way to Super Bowl XLVII. In the last eight games of San Francisco's 2012-13 season, Crabtree had 55 catches for 823 yards and seven touchdowns.

Crabtree brings many things to the table, but two that stand out are his catch radius and his ability to make defenders miss after the catch.  

Both are shown all over this Crabtree highlight video from 2012-13:

A good example of his catch radius is shown at the 1:59 mark when he catches a high pass over the middle in the Super Bowl. As for his ability to make defenders whiff, there's no better example than what he did to the Patriots' Kyle Arrington at the 2:05 mark of the video. 

The catch radius contributed to Crabtree ranking seventh in target-to-catch percentage, per PFF, and his elusiveness helped him finish fourth in YAC (yards after catch).

2012 PFF Wide Receiver Rating Leaders
1. Demaryius Thomas DEN 1,430 Yards 10 TDs 126.2 Rating
2. Eric Decker DEN 1,064 Yards 13 TDs 123.7 Rating
3. Dez Bryant DAL 1,382 Yards 12 TDs 123.2 Rating
4. Michael Crabtree SF 1,105 Yards 9 TDs 119.5 Rating

Pro Football Focus

Where Crabtree will help most is in the short and intermediate levels. Right now, the 49ers are getting most of their big plays out of the passing game on downfield throws to Davis. Crabtree can turn drags, slants and hitches into big plays, which will give Kaepernick several more options to carve up defenses.

To be sure, Crabtree can get open down the field, but expect the majority of the deep shots to go Davis' way even when No. 15 is back.

 

Conclusion

The 49ers have the lowest passing play percentage in the NFL at 44.2 percent. With Manningham and/or Crabtree, they're not suddenly going to pick up the Atlanta Falcons' game plan and pass 69.6 percent of the time.

The Niners usually run the ball to set up the pass, and to this point it has worked wonderfully. After all, San Francisco is sixth in yards per pass attempt and fifth in points per game. 

That being said, the 49ers may need to feature a more pass-heavy offense to move the ball effectively against some of the NFC's contenders, and the 5-3 Panthers are one of those teams.

How many passing yards will Colin Kaepernick have against the Panthers?

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Carolina is allowing just 79.1 yards per game on the ground. The Niners are going to have trouble beating the Panthers if Kaepernick doesn't spread the ball around for more than 200 passing yards, which he's done just once in his last seven games.

And of course there are the Seahawks, who have struggled against the run recently but can't be taken for granted. They stacked the box and held Frank Gore to 16 rushing yards while shutting down Davis and Boldin with their elite secondary in their 29-3 Week 2 victory.

To put it simply, Manningham and Crabtree give the 49ers the talent needed to attack top defenses like Carolina's and Seattle's.

They'll instill confidence in the 49ers coaching staff to air it out more, which will give Kaepernick an opportunity to pick up where he left off at the end of the 2012-13 season (at least 220 passing yards in his final six games).

 

For more 49ers opinions, follow me on Twitter.

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