Leaders Are Born, Not Made
When Anquan Boldin was acquired by the 49ers in March, there were some who lauded the move. There were also some who criticized the acquisition. Boldin came very cheap, as GM Trent Baalke gave up just a sixth-round pick to the Super Bowl champs. His cap number was so prohibitive that the Ravens had to find a trade partner for the veteran receiver or release him. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome needed every last cent of cap room to pay Joe Flacco and makeover their defense, which was retiring or leaving in free agency. At the time, picking up Boldin was a decent move. It offered Colin Kaepernick a third, reliable safety valve to combine with the more explosive Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. With the Niners in win-now mode, it was a move that at least setup the receiving corps for success in 2013. They could develop young talent, but they had a plus-blocker and sure-handed veteran to utilize in the playoff run. However, Crabtree popped his Achilles and Boldin entered camp as the No. 1.
Boldin would have played a role as a mentor and “veteran receiver” in the Niners’ locker room anyway, but his role is much more magnified with Crabtree on the sideline. It’s no secret that San Francisco is littered with veteran leaders on both sides of the ball. It’s also no secret that the 49ers' receiver group is lacking in both talent and leadership. Sure, Vernon Davis will see his share of snaps from wide positions — without the trade, the Niners could be going into the regular season with starters such as Marlon Moore or Jon Baldwin.
Enter Boldin. Kaepernick and Boldin have reportedly been on the same page all camp, only needing to take a handful of snaps in the preseason together. Only Davis has had a better camp as a pass-catcher, and that’s because he offers more speed and ability to get vertical than the aging Boldin. The former Cardinal is also a phenomenal blocker. The 49ers' coaching staff has prided itself on being one of the more physical clubs in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh's crew has to be gushing over the blocking ability of Boldin and the effect his work ethic has had on the other young receivers.
Players such as Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore and other more middling talents certainly stand to benefit from Boldin’s presence. Just improving their run-blocking will allow them to see the field longer. However, Boldin may have the biggest impact on former first-rounder Jon Baldwin and rookie Quinton Patton.
Baldwin has dealt with maturity issues and drops over his first few seasons. In the ultimate challenge trade between the Chiefs and 49ers, the change of scenery may do well for the former Pitt Panther. Boldin has some of the best hands in the NFL. The 49ers themselves can vividly recall multiple plays in the Super Bowl when Boldin went up and snatched the ball out of the air in front of Donte Whitner or Chris Culliver. Some work on the side with his new teammate, and the Jugs Machine, could go a long way toward pushing Baldwin off his bust label.
For rookie Quinton Patton, it’s simple. Boldin was also underrated coming out of school. While some in the draft community were touting Patton as a solid second-round pick, he fell to Day 3 and the Niners snatched him late in the fourth round. Boldin was selected in the second round of the 2002 draft and took the league by storm, posting one of the best seasons for a rookie receiver. Boldin’s line in 2003 (101 receptions, 1,377 yards, eight touchdowns) would clearly be too much to ask for from Patton, but the opportunity is there for the hard-working rookie to make an impact from Day 1.
As I mentioned before, the Niners are laden with leaders. On the defensive side of the ball, you don’t really need to look any further than linebacker. In Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, San Fran not only has two of the best middle linebackers in the sport, but they are also completely interchangeable. A few years ago, when Willis was out for a few games, Bowman stepped right in and called the defensive plays. Bowman and Willis set the pace for one of the most physical defenses in the league. Not to be forgotten are Justin Smith and Donte Whitner. They help anchor the defensive line and secondary, respectively. Additionally, Aldon Smith and Eric Reid might be champing at the bit to lead the 49ers defense' in the future.
On offense, there are plenty of veterans that will keep the team focused on the field. Now that Kaepernick is the starting signal-caller from training camp, he undoubtedly will take a step forward in his maturity and leadership. Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and Joe Staley all return and will have a major voice in the huddle. Having a loaded roster and inventive coaching staff isn’t enough for the Niners after coming within five yards of a championship.
With Super Bowl and playoff experience up and down the roster, the 49ers could have leaders step up from any number of positions.