First, allow me to briefly set the context of this article about San Francisco's current wide receiver situation.
This should be no surprise for 49ers fans after the 2013 season.
In a way, 2013 was an indication of San Francisco's weakest offensive element—the passing game. The 49ers ranked 30th in the NFL in total passing yards (2,979) just over the lowly New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Some of the blame can be attributed to the lack of creative play-calling from 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Some of it can also be placed on the shoulder of second-year starter Colin Kaepernick. The lack of depth at the position also fueled the discussion.
Whatever the reasons may be, the fact remains that the 49ers need to execute better at this level next season.
How do they go about doing this?
That is a formidable question, although one that can certainly be addressed in a number of ways.
Here are a few.
Re-sign Anquan Boldin
When No. 1 receiver Michael Crabtree went down with an Achilles injury at the start of the 2013 organized team activities (OTAs), the acquisition of veteran receiver Anquan Boldin from the Baltimore Ravens emerged as perhaps the most crucial of all 49ers transactions that offseason.
Had that trade not happened, the 49ers would have been without Crabtree for much of the season, forcing San Francisco's offense to rely heavily upon a cast of receivers that were neither dynamic nor explosive.
Getting the production out of Boldin when, at times, there were few other options available, was paramount to what little passing success the 49ers had.
The 49ers enjoyed having both Boldin and Crabtree on the field late in the season and into the playoffs. Both receivers compete against and take pressure off each other.
Without any bona fide receiver opposite Crabtree—who is under contract through 2014—the 49ers would be at a loss if Boldin walks after his one year in San Francisco.
It is likely that Boldin will be seeking more than the $6 million he received in 2013 and the 49ers are certainly looking to see if they can make a deal.
According to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, Boldin remains the 49ers' top priority in the offseason.
Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee feels the same way and writes:
The 49ers’ first move should be to re-sign Boldin, who becomes a free agent in March. But even with Boldin on board, the team must bulk up the position. After all, he will be 34 in October while Crabtree has been injury prone and will be entering the final year of his contract.
More on bulking up the position later.
Boldin has hinted that he would like to return per Mike Florio of NBC Sports and it is likely the 49ers feel the same way.
So what should 49ers fans expect if this transaction takes place?
First of all, San Francisco would have both of its top two receivers back in place next season. Boldin, at 33 years old, is still playing at a high level and showed no signs of slowing down.
Second, the move would allow the 49ers to focus on drafting either a deep-threat or red-zone presence in the draft while not sacrificing one of their pass-catching guys on the roster.
One also cannot overlook the rapport developed between Kaepernick and Boldin during the course of 2013. Kaepernick's maturation process would benefit from his presence.
Add a Receiver Via the Draft
Earlier this month, I wrote a piece highlighting some of the players San Francisco should target in the upcoming NFL draft.
In the first round, one of these should be a wide receiver.
There are two ways to look at this.
First, San Francisco could clearly benefit from a speedy, deep-threat receiver that can help spread the field—taking pressure off Crabtree and Boldin.
Here is where prospects like Oregon State's Brandin Cooks or LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. make sense.
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has the 49ers selecting Beckham with their first pick in 2014 per David Fucillo of Niners Nation.
The other way that we can view how the 49ers will act during the draft is by selecting a top red-zone threat in the draft.
This argument was made by Bleacher Report featured columnist Dylan DeSimone when he appeared on KNBR's Sportsphone 680 segment earlier this month.
DeSimone argues that the 49ers offense, when clicking, is able to move down the field pretty effectively. Their problems arise when trying to punch the ball into the end zone.
A top prospect that would solve this issue, and turn some of those field goals into touchdowns, could be Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin.
While raw in many areas, one cannot overlook his sheer physical nature—6'5" and 234 pounds.
Scott Brown of ESPN highlights some of his attributes and the attention he will receive in the draft by writing:
Benjamin's size and athleticism allowed him to blossom this season as a sophomore as well as score the final touchdown of the college football season. Benjamin really came into his own this season, and in Florida State's final three games he caught 18 passes for 385 yards and six touchdowns.
There are always a variety of ways to address this area of need from the 49ers' vantage point. While they may target Beckham, Benjamin or Cooks, they also may explore other options—perhaps trading up to land a higher-ranked prospect as suggested by Christian Gin of Examiner.com.
At any rate, San Francisco needs some help here.
Don't Give Up on Quinton Patton
At the conclusion of the preseason, it seemed as if the 49ers found a jewel with rookie receiver Quinton Patton after selecting him in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
Patton had a spectacular preseason, but then wound up missing the majority of the regular season with a foot injury.
While the injury hampered his rookie campaign, he did have a significant impact in San Francisco's Week 17 game against Arizona—making a spectacular catch that set up the game-winning field goal.
Even if Patton did not have the rookie season he may have envisioned, the door is still wide open for this young talent to emerge in San Francisco's offense.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh feels strongly about Patton's development, as he stated via Doug Williams of NBC Bay Area:
Quinton’s been a real good blue-collar guy for us now. Each and every week he’s contributed something. And you feel good about that and that improvement and hope for continued success.
With Mario Manningham likely on the way out from San Francisco, Patton has the chance to compete for the 49ers' No. 3 receiver pending what happens with Anquan Boldin.
Having one year under his belt should also provide some benefit.
Further adding to the discussion is the recent news that Patton will train with Kaepernick during the offseason—an aspect that will hopefully help develop their rapport in 2014.
Patton has a chance to play a much larger role in 2014 as long as he is able to showcase being worthy for the assignment.
There is still some room for him to grow, but the indications are that he is moving forward nicely.
Better Play-Calling from Greg Roman
This argument may be the most overplayed in the brief 49ers' offseason thus far.
While some have certainly wished Roman had landed a head-coaching gig elsewhere, in all likelihood he will return as the 49ers offensive coordinator in 2014 per Steve Corkran of the San Jose Mercury News.
Like it or not, 49ers fans will have to live with that next season.
Even Roman has acknowledged the frustration some fans have had regarding his approach.
"That's life in the big city," Roman said via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. "That's part of it. You signed up for it."
With that in mind, how can Roman and the 49ers' passing game improve from its lowly 30th-ranked standing from this past season?
There have been a number of problems pointed out by fans and analysts regarding Roman's play-calling—some of which were pointed out by Kawakami.
Be it the lack of flexibility, poor in-game adjustments or the lack of creativity, Roman does have to bear some of the blame for what has transpired in the 49ers' passing attack in 2013.
Yet some, like 49ers columnist Kevin Lynch of SFGate.com, argue that Roman has been one of the better play-callers in recent San Francisco history. He writes:
One other note, calling plays is extremely difficult and Roman has done it better than any 49ers offensive coordinator since Mike Shanahan. He’s not without flaws, however the 49ers continue to win and his creative reputation around the league continues to grow. Jimmy Raye, Jim Hostler, even Ted Tollner did not get grilled like Roman has, and yet he has proven to be a far better coordinator.
True, it is hard to argue with the overall results. San Francisco has made it to the NFC Championship three seasons in a row with one trip to the Super Bowl. The offense overall has ranked 11th in the league over that same span too.
At least Roman is consistent in this regard.
Still, adjustments do need to be made. There is still a tremendous amount of offensive talent yet to be tapped within this organization and Roman would best be served utilizing that.
I do not consider myself a great mind when it comes to X's and O's, nor would I have brilliant suggestions to make regarding how the offensive game plan should be designed.
What I do know is that the statistics speak for themselves, and properly designed plays—utilizing the talent at hand—can make or break an offense.
Roman needs to figure out how to avoid the latter.
Addressing San Francisco's receiving situation in 2014 will not be an easy task.
These aforementioned aspects, along with others, will be at the heart of how the 49ers go about their preparations for next season.
Yet all is not lost in San Francisco, and the team is in good shape to continue as one of the league's elite franchises.
As stated by Barrows, there’s no reason the 49ers couldn’t go to their fourth straight NFC Championship Game next season or become the first team to play in and host the Super Bowl the following year.
Improving upon the once-desolate receiving game will be a vital aspect to that challenge.