San Francisco 49ers: Projecting Michael Crabtree and the Top Receivers for 2014
When it comes to the passing game, the San Francisco 49ers have fallen since their heyday, when they were consistently one of the top passing offenses in football. Over the past three seasons, the 49ers have ranked 30th, 23rd and 29th in total passing yards.
This year, though, they swear things will be different.
They brought in Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington on draft day, signed free agent Brandon Lloyd and should get a full year from Michael Crabtree and Quinton Patton. They’ve assembled quite the collection of talent; according to FootballPerspective.com, the 49ers are only the second team ever to assemble five or more receivers with 935-plus-yard seasons in their history.
The 49ers only attempted 417 passes last season, placing them last in the league.
That number is almost definitely going to go up in 2014, if only because there’s really no other direction for it to go; no team has attempted less than 400 passes in a year since the 2009 New York Jets, in Mark Sanchez’s rookie year. It would be a criminal waste of talent to not throw the ball more to the receiving corps they’ve assembled.
Who will come down with the most passes in 2014? Let’s rank the top 10 candidates on the roster, ranging from the least to most likely to come down with large numbers of passes. We’re basing the list on their past performances, their future potential and a good dollop of educated guesses.
Reaching the top 10 in catches for the 49ers last year were Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Anthony Dixon and Jonathan Baldwin. None of them will repeat, because they’re not with the team anymore. I also think Bruce Miller will drop out of the top 10, as the team will actually boast a competent set of wide receivers.
Here's your 2014 top 10, starting at the bottom, and working our way up:
10. RB Marcus Lattimore
2011: 19 receptions, 182 yards (at South Carolina)
2012: 26 receptions, 173 yards (at South Carolina)
2013: 0 receptions, 0 yards (recovering from knee injury)
The 10th slot is roughly reserved for whoever comes down with the third running back position for the majority of the year. Both of our current top candidates are hurt—Lattimore is still on the NFI list with the knee injury he suffered in college, while LaMichael James dislocated his elbow and will miss all of training camp.
James is a better receiver than Lattimore, but if both are healthy, it’s hard to imagine Lattimore not getting more playing time than James. That alone will increase his odds of coming down with receptions.
Lattimore’s not a big weapon in the passing game, but he’s not a zero, either. In college, he came down with 74 receptions for 767 yards. No one will confuse him with Pierre Thomas or Danny Woodhead anytime soon, but he has soft enough hands to make a few catches out of the backfield.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman told reporters in a press conference that he wants to use running backs more as receivers out of the backfield. To a certain extent, I’ll believe it when it actually happens on the field, but at least the philosophy is there for running backs to get more receptions.
Prediction: five receptions
9. WR Brandon Lloyd
Brandon Lloyd has some very interesting question marks surrounding him in 2014. The 33-year-old receiver is making a comeback after spending all of last year out of football and before the pads went on, he was looking fantastic. Matt Barrows reported that Lloyd was the “most consistently productive receiver” during the early stages of the offseason and OTAs.
Lloyd might be squeezed out due to the numbers game, however. Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Johnson aren’t going anywhere, and neither are young prospects Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton. Do they keep Lloyd on as a sixth receiver over someone like Kassim Osgood, who can contribute on special teams?
I’d rank Lloyd higher if he was able to show his stuff in preseason action. However, Lloyd will miss 1-2 weeks with an injury, putting him behind in the competition to win the third receiver slot.
These kinds of aches and pains are to be expected with an older receiver who hasn’t put on pads for a year, so there are serious doubts in my mind as to whether Lloyd can hold up for a full NFL season again.
Still, keep an eye on him. He could be one of the biggest surprises of the offseason.
Prediction: five receptions
8. RB Carlos Hyde
2011: 10 receptions, 73 yards (at Ohio State)
2012: 8 receptions, 51 yards (at Ohio State)
2013: 16 receptions, 147 yards (at Ohio State)
Carlos Hyde was almost never asked to catch the ball in college; he’s more of a straight-ahead rusher. His hands aren’t bad, but it’s just not something he was ever asked to do very much.
I’d hope the team has him practicing more on blitz pickup in the passing game than on his receiving skills. He’s the presumptive favorite to be the primary second back to Frank Gore after the injuries suffered at the position, but I just can’t see too many balls thrown his way.
Maybe the 49ers will toss one or two balls at him a game just as a change of pace, but if your passing game is going through Hyde, something is wrong.
He ends up with a higher prediction than Lloyd and Lattimore simply because of the fact that he’ll see the field more. On some teams, that would mean he’d have the opportunity for a lot of dump routes if players are covered, but Colin Kaepernick’s more likely to bring the ball down and scramble himself than dump the ball off to an emergency running back.
Prediction: 10 receptions
7. WR Quinton Patton
2011: 79 receptions; 1,202 yards (at Louisiana Tech)
2012: 104 receptions; 1,392 yards (at Louisiana Tech)
2013: 3 receptions, 34 yards
If someone is going to steal the third receiver role from Johnson, I have a feeling it’s going to be Patton.
Patton didn’t get to see much action last season. He missed a lot of the preseason with a broken finger, and he missed a bunch of time in the regular season with a broken foot. That severely limited his ability to produce, even in San Francisco’s depleted offense last year.
When healthy, however, Patton showed some significant promise. Patton made a big 29-yard grab against Arizona in Week 17 to set up the game-winning field goal. He had another big grab in the divisional round against Carolina, gaining 23 yards.
Patton shined at the team’s open practice in Levi’s Stadium, drawing praise from Jim Harbaugh, according to Bill Williamson. Harbaugh said:
Seen a lot of good things from Quinton Patton. I've always seen a competitive, very competitive individual and talented. Likes to practice, likes to make tough catches, etc. He's stayed healthy this entire offseason and training camp, and he’s starting to stack good practice after good practice. Consistently good. It's a great step.
I have his prediction low because I think he’ll end up as the fourth receiver, but don’t count him out to get regular work in the slot this season.
Prediction: 10 receptions
6. RB Frank Gore
2011: 17 receptions, 114 yards
2012: 28 receptions, 234 yards
2013: 16 receptions, 141 yards
Gore hasn’t been a huge weapon out of the backfield for several years, and his usage isn’t likely to increase as he gets older and his playing time begins to diminish.
When he was younger, yes, Gore could bring in passes with the best of them, peaking with 61 receptions in 2006. He’s seen his total drop every season since 2009, however, and it isn’t really anything teams need to worry about out of the backfield anymore.
Using a modified version of Football Outsiders’ similarity scores, the most comparable receivers to Gore’s age 28-30 seasons are, in order, Corey Dillon, Michael Turner, Thomas Jones and Emmitt Smith. At age 31, Dillon caught 32 passes, Smith caught 11, Jones caught 10 and Turner was out of football
While those are decent comparable players to have a solid season, there’s nothing in the numbers, the trends or anything the coaches are saying that would indicate a sudden upswing in targets to Gore.
Prediction: 15 receptions
5. TE Vance McDonald
2011: 43 receptions, 532 yards (at Rice)
2012: 36 receptions, 458 yards (at Rice)
2013: 8 receptions, 119 yards
Vance McDonald’s rookie season was underwhelming, and I think that’s about the nicest thing you can say about it. According to Pro Football Focus’ advanced stats (subscription required), McDonald only caught 47.4 percent of balls thrown his way, including three drops on only 19 targets. That’s a far cry from the replacement for Delanie Walker people were hoping for.
He’ll get a second chance to make an impact in 2014, and he had the benefit of extra reps during OTAs while Vernon Davis was holding out. However, those reps won’t help if he continues to struggle with drops; Grant Cohn of The Press Democrat reported that McDonald dropped a couple of passes in every practice open to the media before training camp.
He’s looked a little better in training camp proper, with Taylor Price of 49ers.com singling him out on Day 7 as having the best day of anyone on the team. He’ll be another player to keep a close eye on during training camp, as 2014 might be a make-or-break season for McDonald.
Prediction: 20 receptions
4. WR Stevie Johnson
2011: 76 receptions; 1,004 yards (in Buffalo)
2012: 79 receptions; 1,046 yards (in Buffalo)
2013: 52 receptions; 597 yards (in Buffalo)
For all the talk about Patton and Lloyd, Stevie Johnson’s still the favorite going away to earn the third receiving role this year. He’s been the clear No. 1 receiver in Buffalo for each of the last four years, and he brings a recent track record that the other two players can’t match. He’s also only 28, so he’s still in the prime of his career.
Johnson’s numbers will take a nosedive in San Francisco because he won’t be the top dog anymore; he’ll be clearly behind Crabtree and Boldin among the wide receivers. With Kaepernick throwing him passes rather than the likes of EJ Manuel or Ryan Fitzpatrick, however, his efficiency per target should go up.
The one thing to worry about regarding Johnson is his salary. Johnson’s set to earn $3.925 million this season, per Spotrac. Almost none of that is guaranteed, however. If both Lloyd and Patton outplay him, the team could drop Johnson to save some serious salary cap room.
I don’t see that happening. I think that’s a more likely concern next year, when he’ll count more than $6 million against the cap. I don’t know what the team would need the extra money for this season, as opposed to next.
Johnson’s a huge step up over the likes of Marlon Moore and Mario Manningham, who manned the third receiver position last year. Expecting 70 receptions out of him is crazy, as the 49ers aren’t going to suddenly become the Denver Broncos out there, but he’s one of the reasons we should see more passing in San Francisco in 2014.
Prediction: 30 receptions
3. TE Vernon Davis
2011: 67 receptions, 792 yards
2012: 41 receptions, 548 yards
2013: 52 receptions, 850 yards
Vernon Davis’ holdout was never going to seriously cost him the top tight end spot on the team. Davis is still one of the top five tight ends in the league, no matter how you slice it. Even though he’s entering his age-30 season, he should still very productive for years to come.
Using the same similarity-score trick as with Gore, Davis’ closest comparison for his age 27-29 seasons is James Jones’ last three years. Ignoring active players, the closest is Hall of Famer Charlie Taylor, as well as Bob Chandler, Kevin Walter, Randy Moss, Doug Cosbie and Sam McCullum. Anytime you can be reasonably compared to Charlie Taylor and Randy Moss, you’re doing alright.
Davis’ best years are probably behind him at this point, but there’s no reason he can’t be a top-flight starter for another couple of seasons at least.
Davis’ numbers with Kaepernick have been down, compared to the rest of his career; Davis is averaging 2.3 catches per game with Kaepernick, as opposed to 3.2 per game with Alex Smith. That number might continue to go down as more talent is added around him. Nothing’s going to stop him from being a major end-zone threat once again, however.
Prediction: 55 receptions
2. WR Anquan Boldin
2011: 57 receptions; 887 yards (in Baltimore)
2012: 67 receptions; 921 yards (in Baltimore)
2013: 85 receptions; 1,179 yards
How bad would the 49ers have been in 2013 without the trade for Anquan Boldin? Can you imagine if Kyle Williams and Jonathan Baldwin had been San Francisco’s receiving corps until Michael Crabtree came back in Week 13?
That’s at least one more loss, considering how Boldin destroyed Green Bay in Week 1 to the tune of 208 yards receiving, and it could easily have been the difference between the 49ers going 12-4 and making the playoffs and 8-8 and staying home.
Boldin’s certainly no spring chicken, as he’ll be 34 this season. His game has never depended too much on his speed, however, so he should decline less than you’d expect a player of that age to do.
His game is knowing where to go and outmaneuvering defending backs for the ball; that’s something that continues to be relatively effective into your mid-30s. Boldin was able to put up the best year of his career, considering the circumstances, thanks to his savvy playing style.
Still, it’s good that he shouldn’t be called upon to be the top receiver for the 49ers again, as asking for another 1,200-yard season seems a bit overly optimistic. Receivers tend to start to fail as you get higher and higher in the 30s, and at some point, Boldin won’t be able to go anymore.
Still, he should have another year or two left in him. Running that similarity score one more time pops out a nearly who’s-who list of saavy veterans late in their careers—Joe Horn, Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad, Isaac Bruce, Eddie Kennison, Hall of Famer Art Monk, Henry Ellard, Keenan McCardell and Torry Holt.
All but Holt were still active at age 34, and they averaged 48 receptions in those seasons. It goes to show that, despite what the overall numbers say about receiver declines, as PFF's Austin Lee discusses, a receiver in Boldin’s mold can be productive for several years after this point.
Prediction: 70 receptions
1. WR Michael Crabtree
Will this be Crabtree’s last year in red and gold? His contract expires at the end of 2014, and Spotrac forecasts him to make about $9 million a year in a new contract, right up there near the top 10.
That’s a lot of money to spend on a receiver, and the 49ers might not have enough cap room to make that happen. At the very least, one of their high-priced free agents, be it Crabtree or Mike Iupati, is probably going to leave before 2015.
Even if this is his last year in red and gold, however, it looks to be a good one. Colin Kaepernick has said that Crabtree finally looks fully recovered from his Achilles injury and looks “a step or two quicker”.
Finally back at 100 percent and entering a contract year, Crabtree should be extra motivated to put up huge numbers. He’s the undisputed top dog on this team, for one more year at any rate.
Prediction: 80 receptions
All stats, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.