Early in 2013, the 49ers’ passing game was struggling and the wide receivers were contributing very little.
With Michael Crabtree out with an injury, Anquan Boldin became Colin Kaepernick’s wide receiver of choice. But other than Boldin, San Francico’s cast included few contributors. Kyle Williams, Marlon Moore, Quinton Patton and Jon Baldwin either couldn’t get open or couldn’t earn Kaepernick’s confidence.
“It’s not Kaepernick that’s holding the offense back,” wrote Brent Sobleski of USA Today in November of last season. “It’s the team’s lack of talent at wide receiver.”
Through mid-November, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis were the 49ers’ top two pass catchers – followed by fullback Bruce Miller and running back Frank Gore.
“The 49ers’ WRs are simply struggling to get open,” wrote Sobleski.
Six months later, that receiving corps appears to have transformed from an ugly caterpillar to a high-flying butterfly. Now, San Francisco will enter the 2014 season (barring injuries) with one of the best groups of wideouts in the NFL.
Boldin and Crabtree are back, Patton will return with confidence after some strong late-season performances, and San Francisco has added veterans Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd and speedy fourth-round draft choice Bruce Ellington. Throw in Vernon Davis, one of the NFL’s best tight ends, and San Francisco’s receiving group should be a challenge for any defense in 2014.
Bucky Brooks, a former NFL player and current analyst for NFL.com, put together a story this week about the league’s top five receiving groups, and there at No. 4 are the Niners.
Brooks labels the group “one of the deepest receiving corps the NFL has seen in some time.”
“San Francisco’s big, physical receivers have some of the best hands in the NFL – and, more importantly, a diverse set of skills that mesh perfectly on the field,” he wrote.
Johnson figures to be the No. 3 wideout, and when the 49ers go to a three-wide receiver set, that will give Kaepernick Crabtree, Boldin, Johnson and Davis downfield. Not a bad foursome. And if Lloyd regains his form after sitting out a season, and Patton and Ellington blossom, even injuries in 2014 should leave the 49ers in decent shape.
When San Francisco GM Trent Baalke was asked if this is the team’s deepest and best group of receivers since he’s been with the team, he responded, “I think you could make an argument that it is.”
But, he wants to see how it evolves over the next three months until Game 1.
“Until they get in here and they go to work and these young guys get in here and we see where Stevie’s at, we feel very good about it,” Baalke told the team’s website recently. “Feel very good about the group and looking forward to watching them compete.”