San Francisco 49ers: 4 Reasons Jim Harbaugh Must Sign a Free-Agent WR

Ted JohnsonAnalyst IJuly 13, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: 4 Reasons Jim Harbaugh Must Sign a Free-Agent WR

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    With a final team total of 79.4, the San Francisco 49ers ranked 21st overall in pass efficiency in their 6-10 2010 season. There were other statistics that had a deeper impact on the team’s fortunes, but there is no doubt that new coach Jim Harbaugh will want to get more bang out of his passing buck this season.

    Much of the criticism of the lack of more consistent, effective passing has been focused on quarterback Alex Smith, whose played the majority of games last year that ended with San Francisco ranked 29th in the league in completion percentage at 56.4.

    In contrast, New Orleans completed a whopping 68.4 percent of its passes, and therein is the faulty foundation of a struggling San Francisco offense.

    More completions mean more yards and more first downs, begetting more plays, resting the 49er defense while stressing the opposition’s. Finally, this dynamic places the opposition’s offense at its most ineffective position – the sideline.

    However, passing offense reflects a squad’s completeness. The offensive line has to realize the rush schemes and maintain the pocket. The quarterback has to understand the pass coverage schemes and make the right pass to the right player. The receivers have to recognize the coverage and adjust accordingly. Finally, there’s the issue of catching the ball.

    Also, there’s so much beyond the above that goes into a team’s pass rating. A quarterback can throw a quick sideline hitch to a receiver who outruns everyone to the end zone for a 60-yard TD. Or the quarterback can throw an arching bomb downfield, a play that takes a long time develop, putting lots of pressure on the offensive line as well as the need for greater accuracy on the throw.

    The latter requires more overall team play than the former, but the outcome is the same. It’s just the former is an easier, faster way to get more bang from each pass. Either way, it is a good platform from which we can analyze whether the Niners need a receiver who has the capability to make more big plays.

    Sidney Rice, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Steve Smith, to name a few, are available as free agents once the lockout ends. Coupled with the team’s struggles in the pass game last year, here are four reasons why Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke must sign a free agent receiver.

Big Play

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     For all the struggles last year, the Niners did rank 10th overall in pass plays resulting in gains of 20 yards or more. That’s a testament to several factors, not the least of which is the talent of players like WRs Michael Crabtree and Josh Morgan as well as tight end Vernon Davis. Anytime they can get the ball in their hands, they have a chance of making a big play.

     Consider the play of Braylon Edwards for the Jets last year. He averaged 17 yards a catch and while totaling just seven TDs he did have 14 plays over 20 yards. That sort of explosiveness takes the aggressiveness out of a defense. In the 49er offense, that sort of talent would mean more single coverage for Davis and Co.

     Of course, Edwards has a Terrell Owens-like prima donna attitude. He also has a reputation of dropping a lot of balls (more like T.O.), but that part has improved. Signing Edwards will require a big chunk of cash. That tends to run against 49er history.


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    There is no time like the immediate now for a new coach to set the tone. For a player like Michael Crabtree, whose performance has been underwhelming, the addition of someone wholly focused and capable of taking the starting job might be just what the former Texas Tech standout needs.

    Such a move isn’t just a statement to Crabtree but the entire team. There’s a new sheriff in town. Fear is a great motivator. Bringing in Santonio Holmes, the other free agent receiver from the Jets, would be testament to the organization’s commitment to improvement, no matter whose sensitive personality gets hurt.

    Holmes ranked 23rd among receivers in yards per game (62.2), but that was on just 52 catches. More telling, in racking up six TDs he had 11 plays over 20 yards. Will the 49ers have a shot? Again, it’s large dollars, and he appears to have caught the attention of the Redskins.


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    Harbaugh’s plan on incorporating a more traditional West Coast Offense, which requires precise short crossing routes, means that all players have to be in the right spot at the right time. It is the sort of offense that takes time to build; repetition during the offseason really helps.

    Of course, the lockout took care of that. In that perspective, someone who can work inside from the slot – the so-called ‘rub-and-read’ routes where a receiver adjusts his route to find the holes in the under coverage, is a little easier to adjust.

    That’s where a Sidney Rice, who was injured much of last year for the Vikings, comes into play. He had just 17 catches in six games last year, compared to 83 in 2009 when Brett Favre was throwing to him. He has the strength to catch and turn while fighting off tackles. And that makes the WCO even more effective. The question for Rice is his price. In 2009, he ranked as one of the league’s best receivers.

Spread It Around

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    The Niner receivers come down to the Big 3 – Crabtree (55 catches), Josh Morgan (44) and Vernon Davis (56). Running back Frank Gore ranked fourth in catches with 46. That quartet accounted for 71 percent of the team’s 282 completions.

    At first, that looks like a broad diversity of options available to 49er quarterbacks. But compare another stat to the New England Patriots, the NFL’s best passing team. They racked up 38 TDs in ’10, twice as many as the 49ers. Moreover, they had six players who had more TD receptions than the two by Gore and Morgan, whom tied for third highest in San Francisco.

    In other words, when it comes giving SF quarterbacks a greater chance for success, find players who can turn a seemingly short gain into a big one. Part of that can come from scheme. But players help. In Steve Smith of Carolina, the Niners might find a slot receiver who has remarkable speed and explosiveness.

    The former two-time All-Pro has fought injuries the last two years. He finished 2010 with 46 catches at 12 yard per, which is a big falloff from his 2005 numbers: 103 catches at 15.2 per.

    Of course, injuries over the last two years raise questions of Smith’s durability. But that also means he might not be as expensive as some other free agents. That might be a good reason to take a look.