As fifth-year wideout Michael Crabtree continues to heal from his torn Achilles, the San Francisco 49ers are in the midst of searching for his replacement. While losing a top contributor like Crabtree is a devastating blow to the franchise, the 49ers have the depth to get by without him.
Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis are now the most-trusted receiving targets on the roster. Behind them features a three-player race for the No. 2 receiving role, highlighted by A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette. Kyle Williams, who suffered a torn ACL last season, might even be ready for Week 1.
Though none of them can replace a player like Crabtree single-handedly, each can bring something to the table.
Jenkins has the capabilities of playing on the outside or in the slot. During the offseason, he has added four pounds to his frame (196 pounds), and plans to be at 200 pounds once the season begins. The second-year receiver also spent time working out with Colin Kaepernick. Combining Jenkins’ improved physique with a better understanding of his quarterback’s tendencies could make him a factor in 2013.
Patton demonstrated throughout college that he has excellent hands and route-running ability. He constantly made those sideline receptions look routine. While he possesses traits that you would look for in a receiver, he is a willing run blocker. That skill-set is critical for a run-oriented team like the 49ers.
Lockette only has two career receptions (105 yards, one touchdown), but looked impressive as a member of the practice squad. The 49ers lacked a deep-threat last season, so Lockette could contribute in that regard.
If Williams can return in time for the opener against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick will actually have a familiar face to turn to. Williams has shown flashes of his ability at times, but needs to become more consistent if he seeks more playing time. However, his toughness, character and versatility gives him a shot to make strides in year four.
There’s also rookie tight end Vance McDonald. He was used primarily in the slot at Rice and could see a similar role as a pro. With his size and soft hands, expect him to create some matchup problems. The 49ers improved in their red-zone scoring last season, so McDonald should only help in that regard.
Although the receivers lack experience and familiarity with Kaepernick, they all have potential. Since the No. 2 spot has yet to be filled, a greater sense of urgency is created as someone needs to step up and seize the job. Given the steep level of competition within the group, everyone should become better players in the end no matter who winds up on top.
The emergence of Kaepernick may have given San Francisco’s offense a spark in the passing department, but their foundation still lies in the run game.
Frank Gore appears poised to handle another 250-plus carry workload, and LaMichael James possesses the speed to threaten opposing defenses. If Kendall Hunter can provide any kind of service to his team, that would just be an added bonus. Prior to suffering his season-ending Achilles injury in Week 12, Hunter averaged 5.2 yards per carry on 72 attempts.
Losing a top-flight receiver in Crabtree is never good, but the 49ers can turn this negative into a positive with the talent they have on the roster.