In 2013, the San Francisco 49ers' wide receiver situation was precarious.
There are plenty of other adjectives that could be used to describe just how thin San Francisco was entering the 2013 season.
49ers fans know the story. After adding Anquan Boldin, Quinton Patton, Ricardo Lockette and a wide variety of others before the season, what was a presumed strength for San Francisco turned into an invariable weakness.
All of this might have been dandy had it not been for the Achilles injury suffered by No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree heading into the season's organized team activities (OTAs) that year.
But following Crabtree's injury, San Francisco's coaching staff scrambled to find amicable replacements for the production that would be lost.
Names like Lockette, A.J. Jenkins, Chad Hall, Jon Baldwin, Kyle Williams and more graced the depth chart. Most of them are gone now, which makes sense considering the ineptitude San Francisco's offense endured at this playmaking position.
The 49ers' passing offense ranked No. 30 in the NFL last season with 2,979 yards. This statistic falls just above the lowly numbers put up by the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, respectively. Out of the wide receiver crop, only three netted double-digit receptions—Boldin, Crabtree and Williams.
Further frustrating San Francisco's passing woes was the fact that only three players on the roster contributed with touchdown receptions over the season—Boldin, Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis.
Simply stated, the 49ers needed to act this offseason to bolster the receiving corps.
Fortunately, general manager Trent Baalke did so—addressing this issue three times before the conclusion of the 2014 NFL draft.
Let us spend some time breaking down how a 49ers weakness in 2013 may become one of their strong points this upcoming season. We will evaluate San Francisco's actions before and during the draft, along with the implications and effects 49ers wideouts may have in 2014.
Two significant events took place in San Francisco during the offseason that would have lingering effects upon the wide receiver situation.
First, the 49ers approached Baldwin about taking a pay cut last February, per Field Yates of ESPN (h/t Mike Wilkening of NBC Sports). Baldwin's contract, once $1.4 million, has now been reduced to $645,000 plus incentives.
Baldwin—the player whom the 49ers acquired in exchange for 2012 first-round draft pick Jenkins—likely had his salary cut in order to give San Francisco more flexibility in cap space. Given that he will be an unrestricted free agent following this season, the 49ers appear happy to move on at the conclusion of his tenure.
It is hard to fathom Baldwin seeing much of the field in 2014 given some of the later actions San Francisco made during the offseason. All signs point to the 49ers wiping their hands of the first-round Jenkins mistake.
The second addition was that of signing veteran wideout Brandon Lloyd to a one-year, $1.005 million contract in the weeks before the draft.
Lloyd realizes that his future with San Francisco is not guaranteed, especially given the influx of talent the 49ers added. He stated so via Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
I have so many steps I have to take before I can even consider myself on the team, on the roster. Really, I’m just focused on being in condition and being in the right mindset to perform well at the OTAs and perform well at the minicamps.
The 32-year-old Lloyd, who was originally drafted by the 49ers in 2003, enjoyed his best NFL season in 2010 with the Denver Broncos. There, he posted a league-leading 1,448 receiving yards on 77 receptions.
Lloyd did not play last year, so there will be some rust that will have to be shaken off, to put things lightly.
Whether or not Lloyd makes the final 53-man roster is yet to be determined. There are no guarantees as Lloyd admits. Perhaps this move was executed as preparation for the 49ers not being able to land the right wide receivers they wanted during the 2014 draft.
Lloyd will have to impress enough at training camp to prove he belongs.
The 2014 NFL Draft
As it turned out, the 49ers essentially landed two wide receivers during the 2014 NFL draft.
The first wasn't a collegiate prospect, but rather a 27-year-old San Francisco native wideout formerly of the Buffalo Bills.
Stevie Johnson comes back home after Baalke sent a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick in exchange for the services of the 6'2", 210-pounder. Johnson has netted at least 1,000 yards in three of his last four seasons and brings both strength and speed to the 49ers passing game.
After some additional draft-day moves, San Francisco essentially got that 2015 fourth-rounder back, which means Johnson basically came to the 49ers for free.
This was a brilliant move on the part of Baalke. Not only did the 49ers get one of their needs in the draft addressed—speed—they were also able to do so at a bargain-basement cost.
But San Francisco was not finished adding pieces to this portion of the roster.
At only 5'9" and 196 pounds, Ellington will likely be utilized in slot formations where the South Carolina product will be able to use his speed to gain separation against the secondaries San Francisco will face.
Another viable attribute to Ellington's game is the fact that he used to return kicks at the collegiate level. Should the 49ers elect to move on from LaMichael James in this regard, Ellington would be the favorite to step in right away and assume the role.
2014 Roster—Moving Forward
As things stand, the 49ers' current receiving roster looks something like this in terms of depth:
Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson, Ellington, Quinton Patton, Lloyd, Baldwin, Kassim Osgood, Chuck Jacobs, Devon Wylie and David Reed.
We should expect plenty of Crabtree and Boldin as the Nos. 1 and 2 receivers this season. Yet where the 49ers were really hurting last year was in that third wideout slot. Patton would have been the favorite, but a foot injury limited him to just six games last year.
While the additions of Johnson and Ellington may thwart Patton's placement on the depth chart, it is hard to envision the 49ers doing anything but keeping him active over the course of the 2014 season.
Osgood is another one of those players hard to envision being inactive. While he is rarely utilized in offensive formations—totaling one reception for 17 yards last year—he does add value to San Francisco's special teams coverage unit.
That leaves Lloyd, Baldwin, Jacobs, Wylie and Reed to fight for the scraps.
Competition in OTAs and training camp will determine which of these players makes the final 53-man roster, is demoted to the practice squad or in a veteran like Lloyd's case, is summarily released.
An early prediction for the 49ers' final wide receiver depth chart should be listed as the following:
Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson, Ellington, Patton and Osgood, with the remainder either being released or placed on the practice squad.
So, what can we make of this group of wideouts the 49ers will most likely carry over into 2014?
The biggest note is that San Francisco is much more upgraded when it comes to adding speed to the mix. This was an element the team lacked in 2013. As a result, secondaries were able to lock down to a greater effect on the slower, more physical receivers like Boldin and Crabtree.
Speedsters like Johnson and Ellington shall force opposing defensive backs back in order to respect the deep pass. This, in turn, opens up plays underneath—areas that Boldin and Crabtree thrive.
Considering this, the 49ers are much better prepared to face off against some of the elite defenses around the NFL, most noteworthy of which is that of the Seattle Seahawks.
The 49ers' offseason plans seemed to rotate around how to beat Seattle in this fashion. With some of these acquisitions, the team is in much better shape to do so.
At the end of the day, plenty of additional factors will have to go into making this unit of the 49ers offense as effective as it can be.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick will need to be able to distribute the ball much better than he did last season. This means progression reads and the ability to deliver the ball effectively out of the pocket as Hall of Famer Steve Young noted, via this author.
It also means that offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have to get creative enough to best utilize these new weapons in his game plan. With Jim Harbaugh relaying the calls to Kaepernick, the head coach will also have to put faith in Roman's scheme.
The 49ers were last in the NFL in 2013 when it came to utilizing three-wide receiver sets, per Bill Williamson of ESPN. While some of that may be attributed to the lack of viable depth at the position, offseason moves suggest San Francisco's coaching staff will shift its strategy in this regard.
In all, we will not be entirely sure how the 49ers' offseason approach to bulking up the receiving corps will pan out until the 2014 season is said and done.
Hopefully by that point, the moves will have worked and San Francisco's passing game ranks much higher than the lowly numbers it posted a year ago.
Fortunately, all signs point to the team being perfectly capable of doing this.
Peter Panacy is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Be sure to check out his entire archive on 49ers' news, coverage and analysis.
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