Breaking Down The 49ers: Wide Receiver
The 49ers have been fortunate enough to field some of the deepest rosters in the NFL since Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach. Harbaugh has gotten the most out of those players, but credit to 49ers GM Trent Baalke and his scouting department for coming in and turning the franchise’s fortunes around in 2010.
However, one position group that has been lacking young talent and depth for a long time is wide receiver. Let's take a look.
WR Corps (2011-13)
It didn't have to be a strength for the Niners early in Harbaugh's tenure, as the power run game and physical defense propped up the team, requiring less of an impact from Alex Smith and his receivers. In 2011, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree were the only players with more than 20 catches, and neither player could crack 900 yards. With Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn, Braylon Edwards, Josh Morgan and Brett Swain filling out the rest of the group, it's pretty telling why the 49ers went run-heavy. Sure, part of the plan was to “hide” Smith's iffy-arm and sometimes-happy feet in the pocket but, outside of Crabtree, who was he throwing to?
In 2012, it was more of the same as the Niners “re-loaded” the receiving corps with veterans Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, while also using a first rounder on A.J. Jenkins. Well, Jenkins couldn’t find a spot on the team before his second season, and was sent packing before 2013 started. While Manningham tore his ACL late in the regular season, he still had the second-most catches and yards for a receiver, behind Crabtree. Moss became the de-facto No. 2 receiver, making minimal plays, but keeping the defense honest. Crabtree reaped the rewards and posted No. 1 receiver numbers when Colin Kaepernick entered the starting lineup.
In 2013, it had looked like the Niners had finally put together two solid starting receivers, after trading for Anquan Boldin prior to the draft. However, when Crabtree popped his Achilles, San Francisco was back to square one. Although he returned late in the season, Crabtree’s absence left the corps barren again. For most of the season, Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin and Marlon Moore ran opposite Boldin as the No.2 receiver. Quinton Patton was nagged by injury, Manningham had trouble returning from his torn ACL and Kassim Osgood is a special teams player. The 49ers were forced to use Vance McDonald (backup tight end) and Bruce Miller (fullback) in the passing game.
While we're still sifting through the details of Kaepernick's contract situation, there's no question he'll be asked to do more with his weapons this season. While his “$61 million” guaranteed is ultimately a farce -- the 49ers will pay him on a year-to-year basis -- he will be rewarded if his growth continues. He'll have the most talent of any Niners quarterback since Jeff Garcia, so there are no excuses for some of the shaky play that we saw in parts of 2013.
Those dips in Kaepernick's performance mostly came early in the season, when Crabtree was sidelined. Additionally, Vernon Davis was hampered by a leg injury and a concussion during parts of the regular season, particularly against Indianapolis and Carolina. His confidence in himself and his replacement receivers, such as Williams and Baldwin was clearly lacking. Having Crabtree back at close to full strength in the playoffs made a sizable impact, and they likely wouldn't have defeated the Packers in Green Bay. Crabtree was the go-to target for Kaepernick in the first quarter, before attracting attention so that Boldin and Davis could find holes.
The 49ers can't be expected to stray too far from the 55-45 run/pass ratio of 2013, but a 50-50 split is a reasonable expectation for their run/pass breakdown given their current personnel. The backfield became a little more crowded with the addition of Carlos Hyde and a healthy (maybe?) Marcus Lattimore, but nothing has really changed. Sure, Frank Gore is heading into his age-31 season, and has shown signs of slowing down. If the Niners are truly serious about putting more of the load on Colin Kaepernick's shoulders, the other backs will have to vastly improve their pass protection to reach the stratospheric levels that Gore has reached.
Perhaps they could let Hyde, Lattimore and Kendall Hunter take a significant share of the early-down work, leaving Gore to play on most second and thirddowns. That would really be the only way to lighten his load, while also getting him on the field to excel in pass protection. However, the coaching staff has increasingly said they’re attempting to have more of a backfield rotation, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Despite being 31, the job is still Gore’s to lose.
Baalke was able to stockpile talent from this year’s loaded receiver class, as well as pick up a proven receiver. The buzz after Stevie Johnson was picked up was about his game against Seattle in 2012, and specifically his touchdown catch against Richard Sherman. Now, I don’t take much away from one game, especially since the Seahawks absolutely embarrassed the Bills in that December 2012 game in Toronto. And, no, Johnson isn’t the deep receiving threat that so many were clamoring for prior to the draft. That honor still belongs to Vernon Davis.
However, what Johnson does bring to the table is the ability to get a clean release from the line of scrimmage. What made him so good against Darrelle Revis over the years -- and gave him a leg up in his meeting with Sherman -- was his ability to beat press-man from the snap. If a corner can’t get a body on him early, to slow his route, Johnson will get open more often than not versus man coverage.
With Crabtree back to full strength, you’d think Anquan Boldin and Johnson will take a backseat to the impending free agent. You could argue the Niners will dial back Crabtree’s looks and even snaps overall, in an effort to deflate his value before he hits the open market. However, for the sake of the team, the fifth-year receiver is likely to have a career year as Kaepernick’s go-to target.Therein lies the problem for defenses facing the 49ers in 2014.
If they move to more 11 personnel packages, opposing defensive coordinators will have to move away from their base defense. Whether that means five or six defensive backs, the defense will be putting smaller, quicker bodies on the field. That's ultimately playing right into the Niners' hands. The 49ers aren't returning the same five offensive linemen as they've done over the past two seasons. However, they are returning their top four linemen, while adding youth at center. If Marcus Martin wins the starting center job, many would say the Niners improved in the trenches.
Additionally, Davis and Boldin are two of the better blockers in the league at their respective positions. So, not including Crabtree and Johnson, there are seven very capable and powerful run-blockers. Then, you have to account for the running back and quarterback. We may never know how serious Kaepernick’s “foot” injury early in the season was, but Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman designed more runs for him later in the season.
So, how do you go about stopping an already dominant running game when the Niners can now spread you out with four or five pass-catching threats? (we're assuming Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington or Vance McDonald can take on that fifth receiver role).
It will be up to defensive coordinators on how they defend the Niners, but I think the onus will be on stopping the run and attempting to confuse Kaepernick in the secondary. Switching up man and zone looks, nickel and dime packages ... anything to throw the third-year starter out of rhythm. With the weapons he has at his disposal, all of whom possess the smarts and instincts to get open during a scramble drill, there’s too many things that have to go wrong for the offense not to perform.
Although the 49ers haven’t exactly gotten younger at the position, the wide receiver corps has gone from a position of weakness to one of strength.
For a team that is still in “win-now” mode, but has some aging pieces, improving the stable of receivers was a must. Although Crabtree and Boldin aren’t likely to be around for long, the rest of the group will be a key part of Kaepernick’s progress as he attempts to earn the escalators and bonuses in his potentially lucrative long-term deal.