Who Does No. 2 Work For?
Entering voluntary OTAs in May, the only personnel questions facing the 49ers were actually on the defensive side of the ball.
The offense was returning a top-5 offensive line, a third-year quarterback whose arrow is pointing straight up after taking over at starter midway through 2012 and an improving receiving corps, led by breakout star Michael Crabtree, sure-handed veteran Anquan Boldin, and athletic tight end Vernon Davis.
The defense lost All-Pro free safety Dashon Goldson, starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and rotational defensive lineman Ricky-Jean Francois to free agency.
Then, on May 21, it happened. It was Crabtree popping his Achilles while wearing shorts and a T-shirt at OTAs. He received surgery the next day for a full tear. Jim Harbaugh speculated that Crabtree would be back in six months, but let's file that comment under coach speak. Getting an effective Crabtree back for the playoffs would probably be the best-case scenario.
Harbaugh opened the competition up to first-rounder A.J. Jenkins, 2013 fourth-rounder Quinton Patton and undrafted free agent Ricardo Lockette. Since Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman play everything close to the vest, we might not know who wins the No. 2 job until Week 1.
So, who wins the training camp battle? Let’s look at the key players involved.
The front-runner is A.J. Jenkins. After showing up out-of-shape to 2012 rookie minicamp and struggling to get on the field in his rookie season, it appears Jenkins has taken this offseason seriously. He trained with Ricardo Lockette and Colin Kaepernick in Atlanta as they worked on speed and strength training. Expectations from fans will be unreasonably high for the former first-rounder, but Roman is sure to put Jenkins in situations for him to succeed. It will be up to Jenkins to take advantage of his opportunity.
Ricardo Lockette is an underdog to win the position, but after a productive offseason and plenty of praise from Jim Harbaugh, he certainly could be a factor. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, with a 4.34 in the 40-yard dash, Lockette is the ultimate height/speed prospect. With absurd athleticism, it’s easy to get excited, but he’s been used almost exclusively on practice squads for his career, and has just two career receptions. It would be a long shot for Lockette to lineup across from Boldin.
Quinton Patton could be the sleeper. CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco remarked after one day of rookie camp, “Quinton Patton is nowhere close to being ready.” However, with the Niners looking for someone to step up, Patton shouldn’t be forgotten. Jenkins never looked the part as a rookie and Lockette has long been criticized for his poor route running. By just showing up, and learning from veterans like Boldin, Patton could open some eyes in training camp.
There are also a few wildcards in the mix. Both Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are returning from torn ACLs. While neither is a stud, both have had experience playing with Kaepernick. But Williams and Manningham may not be ready for the start of the season.
Another X-factor could be acquired via free agency or trade. The free-agent list is alarmingly thin, with Brandon Lloyd, Laurent Robinson and Austin Collie the most promising of all the names. Trent Baalke has an abundance of draft picks in 2014, so that would seem like the most likely scenario.
Unfortunately, any trade would likely be made early in camp by a team wanting to cut some dead weight. The new Niner would be behind the curve trying to pick up the offense. It really seems like Harbaugh and Co. seem content to roll with the receiving corps they have right now.
While we can speculate all we want, Harbaugh may not even declare a starter until Kaepernick and the rest of the offense lines up in September. For now, second-year player A.J. Jenkins has edged out to an early lead. If nothing else, it makes for great fantasy football fodder.