Heading into training camp, and looking forward to the start of the regular season, the 49ers have a log-jam at wide receiver.
For the San Francisco faithful, having a crowded receiving corps is a welcomed problem to have, as the team has been searching for top-flight wide receiver talent since the departure of Terrell Owens in 2003.
Currently, the 49ers have five wide receivers that saw significant playing time a year ago—the list includes future Hall-of-Famer Isaac Bruce, who is returning to the 49ers for a final season after contemplating retirement, third-year receiver Jason Hill, second-year receiver Josh Morgan, long-time 49er Arnaz Battle, and free-agent acquisition Brandon Jones.
The 49ers let go of receiver Bryant Johnson, who caught 45 balls for 546 yards and three touchdowns last season.
If the 49ers had held onto Johnson, they would have six capable wide receivers—even before adding Texas Tech standout Michael Crabtree into the mix, after drafting the former Red Raider with their tenth overall selection in this year's draft.
Needless to say, even after releasing their former No. 2 receiver Bryant Johnson (who is now with the Detroit Lions), the 49ers still have six receivers worthy of significant playing time.
It is a great problem to have for head coach Mike Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye, but the question remains—how are the 49ers going to spread the ball around to their numerous receivers, especially considering San Francisco is a running football team?
The chances San Francisco keeps all six receivers on the roster are extremely unlikely, as most depth charts of the season max 53 man roster include five receivers.
Therefore, unfortunately for 49er fans who have come to enjoy Arnaz Battle's contributions on the field, he is most likely to be the odd man out; however, 49ers general manager Scott McCloughan ought to be searching for teams in need of a wide receiver, because Battle is definitely not washed up.
Cutting loose Battle would be a poor move, as Battle can serve as a quality slot receiver for a team who already has clear-cut No. 1 and No. 2 receivers.
From 2006-2007, Battle caught 109 balls for 1,268 yards and eight touchdowns on a 49ers team that then had a rather weak receiving corps. Hopefully, McCloughan can find a trade partner and pick up either a draft pick or more defensive line help in the deal.
Either way, with Battle most likely gone, that still leaves San Francisco with five quality receivers in Bruce, Morgan, Hill, Jones, and Crabtree.
Clearly, Isaac Bruce is still going to be the No. 1 receiver on the depth chart after a tremendous comeback season last year.
After catching just 55 balls for 761 yards and three touchdowns in 2007 with the Rams, Bruce caught 61 passes for 835 yards and seven touchdowns in his first season with San Francisco.
The numbers may not seem like that much of an improvement, but due to his age, putting up better numbers at all is a tremendous accomplishment. With the chemistry he built with quarterback Shaun Hill, those numbers could have been even better had Hill been under center the entire season.
Following Bruce on the depth chart should be none other than Josh Morgan. Last year, Morgan dazzled fans during the preseason and continued his superb play in the regular season, but missed significant time due to coming down with an illness that caused him to lose 15 pounds at the start of the season.
Coincidentally, Morgan was left behind in his development during his rookie year, and in 12 games managed just 20 receptions; however, in those 20 catches, Morgan racked up 319 yards, good for an even 16.0 average and three touchdowns.
Coming back healthy for the 2009 season, Morgan—not Crabtree—may end up being the big-time 49er receiver who breaks out for a Pro Bowl-caliber season; Morgan clearly has the ability to become a star.
In fact, even though most football fans know that Crabtree has nearly all the receiving records at Texas Tech, many people don't know that Morgan holds nearly all the receiving records for Virginia Tech.
The former sixth round pick Morgan now has a year's experience in the NFL, and it would be smart for the 49ers if they kept the pressure away from Crabtree and have Morgan start opposite Isaac Bruce.
After Morgan as the No. 2 wide receiver, many would think that Crabtree should be the next receiver onto the field in the three wide-receiver set.
However, Jason Hill showed some promise late last season, as all 30 of his receptions came in the team's final nine games—coincidentally, the same nine games that were led by Mike Singletary.
Hill improved immensely from his rookie yea,r in which he caught just one pass while barely seeing the field. Now entering his third season, Hill could be an extremely effective possession receiver.
In the ideal world, Hill and Crabtree ought to rotate as the third receiver for the 49ers. On shorter third down situations, the more experienced Hill should see the field for important first down conversions; however, on third and long plays, Crabtree should get his first taste of the NFL, in situations where he has the opportunity to make big plays.
Instead of throwing Crabtree into the fire against NFL defensive backs who are years better than the corners he faced at Texas Tech, the 49ers ought to bring him in slowly and match him up against safeties and opposing team's third- and fourth-string corners.
Taking their time with Crabtree is essential to keep any chance of a prima donna type receiver from developing with such a highly-rated draft pick. Not only that, but Crabtree's foot injury that caused him to miss the NFL scouting combine prevented him from partaking in drills during mini camp.
Unless the 49ers stumble early on during the season, Crabtree should be used carefully and be put in situations to succeed. There is no need to rush his development unless the rest of the receiving corps starts to falter.
Therefore, the crowded receiving corps ought to look as such on a depth chart:
1. Isaac Bruce
2. Josh Morgan
3. Jason Hill/Michael Crabtree
4. Michael Crabtree/Jason Hill
5. Brandon Jones
Jones, the free-agent acquisition from Tennessee, may have a difficult time finding playing time. The rest of the 49ers receivers are either already familiar with coach Singletary, or—in Crabtree's case—have high expectations to see quality playing time.
Last season, Jones caught 41 balls for 449 yards, but only one touchdown and 3.1 yards after catch on average.
Meanwhile, Josh Morgan caught less than half the amount of receptions, yet had two more touchdowns and 5.3 average yards after catch.
So, whether or not Jones can live up to the bill and be the speedy receiver that the 49ers brought him in to be is very much in question.
With the rest of the 49ers receivers prime for big seasons, Jones may be left behind.
Now clearly the depth chart is subject to change due to potential injuries and on-field performance, but as of right now, Josh Morgan should join Isaac Bruce as starting wide receivers, not Michael Crabtree.
However, we'll all have to wait until September 13th to find out for ourselves how Singletary and Raye are going to manage this log-jam at wide receiver.
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