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Breaking Down San Francisco 49ers' New-Look Receiving Corps

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Breaking Down San Francisco 49ers' New-Look Receiving Corps
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

It has been a long time since the San Francisco 49ers have had one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.

For a while now the Niners have had one top-tier wideout, with little in terms of depth below that premier pass-catcher.

San Francisco's lack of resource at the position was exposed last season, with the acquisition of Anquan Boldin proving to be a saving grace for an aerial attack that otherwise struggled minus the presence of the injured Michael Crabtree.

Crabtree's return prompted an improvement toward the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, yet the 49ers' passing game ranked at No. 30 in the NFL, despite Boldin putting up 1,000 yards in his maiden season in the Bay Area.

But for all their offensive disappointments last season, the 49ers still came agonisingly close to booking a return to the Super Bowl.

And the scary thing for opposing teams is that San Francisco's core of receivers figures to be significantly improved thanks to the additions it has made during the offseason.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman will have much more talent to work with in terms of wideouts in 2014, and here I break down how the 49ers' new-look receiving corps will shape up going into the 2014 season.

 

The Additions

The 49ers received much praise for their haul in the 2014 NFL draft.

Perhaps the best draft-day acquisition that San Francisco made was the trade it agreed with the Buffalo Bills to bring receiver Steve Johnson back to his hometown.

Johnson has finished three of the last four seasons with 1,000 yards and gives the Niners another experienced pass-catcher who has consistently performed at the highest level of the game.

Experience is what appears to define San Francisco's receiving core heading into new campaign.

Indeed, the group is filled with veteran campaigners, one of which is Brandon Lloyd, who in April made a surprising return to the team that drafted him.

Lloyd makes his comeback following a year away from the game and will look to rediscover the kind of form that saw him impress during stints with the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots.

At the other end of the spectrum, San Francisco opted to use a fourth-round pick to select Bruce Ellington from South Carolina.

Ellington arrives on the back of an excellent final season with the Gamecocks and has the potential to make an immediate impact with his speed and big-play ability.

 

Depth Chart

The 49ers are set to head into training camp with 11 receivers on their roster.

That number will likely be cut to around six before the start of the campaign, with—as the prospective pre-training camp depth chart I have put together demonstrates—the likes of Jon Baldwin, David Reed, Devon Wylie and Chuck Jacobs needing to impress if they are to have any chance of making the final roster.

Predicted San Francisco 49ers' Receivers Depth Chart
WR1 Michael Crabtree Bruce Ellington Jon Baldwin
WR2 Anquan Boldin Quinton Patton Kassim Osgood
WR3 Steve Johnson Brandon Lloyd
Others David Reed Chuck Jacobs Devon Wylie

N/A

At this stage in the preparations for the 2014 season, it is perhaps too early to make assumptions as to how San Francisco's roster will pan out. However, given the talent of Crabtree, Boldin and Johnson, it is not difficult to project the receivers who will be handed the most responsibility in 2014.

Possibly the main question surrounding the makeup of the 49ers' receiving corps is whether Lloyd will show enough of his previous prowess to secure a spot on the final 53-man squad.

Lloyd's prospects of earning a place on the team may well hinge on how much the 49ers value Kassim Osgood, who impressed significantly on special teams.

Even though Osgood made a minimal contribution on offense in 2013, he is a valuable player in the third facet of the game, meaning that it could well be up to Lloyd to demonstrate that he is worthy of taking the roster spot with a strong offseason.

 

Scheme Fit Assessment

Competition for playing time and a high spot on the 49ers' regular-season receiving depth chart is set to be fierce due to the level of quality present among the core of wideouts attempting to catch the eye during training camp.

But how do the receivers competing to play a major role in San Francisco's offense fit into the scheme of the 49ers?

For the sake of argument let's assume, as seems likely, that Reed, Wylie and Jacobs do not make the final roster.

Additionally, it seems unfair to throw Osgood into this conversation given that he has made his name covering kicks and punts, while Baldwin—who failed to impress in 2013 when given the chance—also figures to be cut before the start of the campaign.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press
Greg Roman is the man tasked with energizing the Niners' offense

That leaves six receivers in the discussion for significant playing time.

In order to analyze how those wideouts fit in to the 49ers offense, it is worth taking a look back at how Roman ran the unit last season.

To put it simply, this is an offense that makes a living out of running the football.

Indeed, San Francisco ranked at No. 3 on the ground in 2013, and its commitment to the running game seems unlikely to change, especially when you take into account the addition of Ohio State back Carlos Hyde with a second-round pick.

As a run-first team, the 49ers did not attempt too many deep throws in the previous campaign, with Kaepernick, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), completing 21 of 57 throws of 20 yards or more.

By contrast, over 300 of the passes attempted by the San Francisco signal-caller were under 20 yards.

Furthermore, the 49ers were last in the NFL in running three-receiver sets in 2013, according to Bill Williamson of ESPN.com.

The Niners' apparent preference for short-to-intermediate throws suits the likes of Crabtree, Boldin and Johnson, none of whom possess blazing speed but have the all-round ability to make the most of short-to-medium throws.

Crabtree, described as the "greatest catcher ever" by head coach Jim Harbaugh back in January, poses a significant threat to defenses with his tremendous capability to earn yards after the catch.

Boldin excelled in the Niners' system last season, his physicality, consistent ability to get open and make contested catches coming to the fore.

Johnson fits a similar mould to that of Boldin and Crabtree. The former Kentucky Wildcat is by no means a burner, yet he is an intelligent route-runner who is capable of beating defenders on the outside and in the slot, making him an ideal candidate to operate in an offense that takes more of a methodical approach to breaking down defenses. 

Quinton Patton, with his combination of acceleration, strong hands and ability to generate separation, also projects as a good fit for a scheme largely built around short, lower-risk completions, yet his playing time could be severely reduced by the acquisition of Ellington.

The main reason Ellington's arrival in the Bay may hurt Patton's chances of seeing the field more often is because of his speed.

San Francisco's aerial attack, for all its limitations in 2013, was sporadically explosive and has the potential to be even more so in 2014.

Kaepernick, per PFF, was largely successful when going deep last season, posting a quarterback rating of 112.1 on passing attempts of over 20 yards over the middle and 149.3 on throws to the left-hand side of the field of similar distances.

Therefore, the addition of a speedster like Ellington should excite the 49ers' triggerman and may prompt Roman to alter his game plan somewhat to accommodate the rookie.

Ellington ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, and while he is more quick than fast, his game speed and proficiency with the ball in his hands in space should allow the 49ers to change things up from their usual offensive scheme and spread the field more regularly than they did in 2013.

Meanwhile, Lloyd, if he continues to produce the kind of performances thatper Eric Branch of The San Francisco Chroniclehave earned him praise during OTAs, should have a good chance of making the final cut.

Lloyd may not have breakaway acceleration, but he can still boast the body control and outstanding hands needed to make circus grabs, particularly in the red zone.

His sure hands and ability to make a difference down near the goal line make Lloyd a good scheme fit for any offense, and despite his year away from football, Lloyd could represent a significant asset to the Niners' passing game.

 

Predicting the Impact

So we know that the Niners receivers fit in with the offensive scheme run by San Francisco, but which of those players are in line to have the biggest impact in 2014?

Crabtree and Boldin will be the starting duo barring any injuries, and both have the potential for huge seasons.

After recovering from Achilles surgery, Crabtree showed signs of getting back to his best in the playoffs.

And assuming that the former Texas Tech wideout is not suffering any ill effects of that issue, there is little reason why Crabtree cannot produce the kind of performances that saw him break out for over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012.

The potential concerns over Boldin surround his age.

Boldin turns 34 in October; however, he did not look like slowing down in 2013, proving the Baltimore Ravens wrong for trading him for a sixth-round pick with a year that convinced the 49ers to re-sign him to a two-year deal.

San Francisco will naturally hope that Boldin is able to justify his new contract. Yet, the presence of Johnson should take some of the pressure off the starting pair.

How important the addition of Johnson turns out to be will depend on how willing the Niners are to open things up offensively.

Johnson, after several years of being the go-to guy in Buffalo, will not be happy with a bit-part role in the team and—if used correctly—has the capability to form one the top receiving trios in the league with Crabtree and Boldin.

Further down the depth chart, it may be a matter of who catches the eye in training camp that decides which of the Niners' other wideouts will have the biggest part to play.

Ellington's pace and tendency to make big plays from the slot, which he displayed in impressive two-touchdown performances against Missouri and Wisconsin in his final collegiate season, may give him the inside track.

On the other hand, Patton will hope that his familiarity with the offense and encouraging performances in the final weeks of the regular season and in the playoffs will afford him the opportunity for greater time of the field.

But despite making crucial catches against the Arizona Cardinals and the Carolina Panthers after recovering from a fractured foot, Patton is in need of a big offseason to ensure that he gets the nod over Ellington and Lloyd.

Arguably the main problem for Patton is that Lloyd, should he continue to make an impression, is a receiver with the ability to consistently make big plays down the field and in the red zone, a trait that will earn him plenty of attention from the San Francisco coaching staff.

Few outside of the 49ers organization will know how well Lloyd can perform following a season away from the NFL. However, if he is able to rediscover his best form, then the 32-year-old can provide a valuable veteran presence and operate in a role akin to that of Randy Moss during his brief time in San Francisco.

 

Final Thoughts

A few seasons ago, San Francisco had no receivers capable of posting 1,000-yard seasons.

Now the 49ers have three in addition to one of the best tight ends in the game in Vernon Davis.

The onus will be on Roman to make best use of this extremely talented group, and if he does, the results could be extraordinary.

Potentially relying on Ellington as the primary deep threat may be a risky strategy if the Niners choose to go in that direction. Still, the fact remains that this is a receiving core with the all-around talent to challenge any defense in the NFL.

Late last month, Harbaugh predicted a breakout year for Kaepernick on the basis of the additions made at receiver, and looking at the depth the 49ers now have at the position, it is difficult to disagree.

 

Note: All individual player statistics courtesy of Sports Reference, unless otherwise stated.

Nicholas McGee is a San Francisco 49ers Featured Columnist based in Leeds, England. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasmcgee24

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