Imagine you’re Colin Kaepernick. As a backup quarterback for the 49ers, you come into a game mid-season for the injured Alex Smith. You play well enough to take over the role as the starting quarterback and you successfully lead your team to the Super Bowl. You lose, and now you’re faced with your first full year at the helm. Your team got rid of the quarterback whose job you took over and there is not an impressive backup in sight – it’s just you. The pressure is immense, but you’re ready. Now imagine the wide receiver you targeted most in your debut year goes down with an Achilles tear and won’t be able to play until the final month of the season, at best. The player you trusted, felt most comfortable with, and leaned on in the biggest moments of your young career is on crutches. Now what?
In Kaepernick’s breakout season, he targeted Michael Crabtree 94 times, almost three times as often as his next favorite target, tight end Vernon Davis. Crabtree’s 1,105 receiving yards were almost double that of any other player on the team. He was the play-making wide receiver for the 49ers in 2012 and hopes were high for the Crabtree/Kaepernick combination heading into 2013. Then, on May 22nd, Crabtree tore his Achilles during OTA’s and underwent surgery to repair it. There is hope that he will be able to return to the field for the final few weeks of the regular season but until then, he leaves a gaping hole in the receiving core. Beyond Crabtree and Davis, Kaepernick’s next most targeted receivers were Randy Moss and Delanie Walker, neither of whom is on the team this season. Next on the list is Mario Manningham, who is rehabbing a knee injury he sustained in December. Both Manningham and Crabtree will be on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to start the season, meaning they will both miss at least the first six weeks. In short, besides tight end Vernon Davis, Kaepernick will be looking down the field at a very different set of faces when he takes the field to start the season.
With the final roster cut deadline just a few days away, the questions regarding who will be catching Kaepernick’s passes this season are finally close to being answered. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin, acquired from the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason, is a lock for the No. 1 spot. He has the ability to get open and make plays deep, a crucial skill for working with Kaepernick, who was the most successful deep ball passer in the league last season. Wide receiver Kyle Williams is almost certain to be the starter across from Boldin, despite the fact that he has not played in any pre-season games as he tries to bounce back from an ACL injury from last year. Word from camp is that he’s impressed everyone and will be ready to contribute at the start of the season.
Beyond Boldin and Williams, things start to get a bit more crowded. Recently Coach Jim Harbaugh traded the struggling A.J. Jenkins to Kansas City for Jon Baldwin. Jenkins was the first-round pick by the 49ers in the 2012 draft but was active for just three games last year, despite being healthy. He did very little to impress the team in the offseason and was traded as a result. Baldwin hasn’t had much time yet to prove himself to his new team, but all indications are that the team is happy with his progress so far. Harbaugh has described him as a good fit and he is a likely candidate to make the final roster.
Amongst the rest of the names in the battle to make the roster, including Marlon Moore, Chad Hall, Kassim Osgood, Austin Collie, and Lavelle Hawkins, rookie Quinton Patton seems to be rising to the top. Patton’s ability to show his worth was limited by a broken finger that kept him out for several weeks, but he made the most of the time he had during his first pre-season performance on Sunday. He caught four passes for 35 yards and got a touchdown in the game and he looks comfortable playing on the big stage. Kaepernick has shown on and off the field that he sees Patton as a smart, reliable receiver who finds ways to get open. The chemistry between the two will go a long way to solidifying his spot on the team.
Regardless of who makes the team, the instability at the wide receiver position is compounded by the lack of a reliable back-up quarterback. Kaepernick is certainly one of the most talented quarterbacks heading into the 2013 season, but what if he gets hurt? As the 49ers well know, no matter how good your starter is, a solid backup is an absolute necessity. The problem with having such a multi-dimensional quarterback like Kaepernick is that it becomes much harder to find a backup who can handle the plays. Defenses around the league will be well aware that it will only take one hard hit to Kaepernick to get to get to Colt McCoy. Defenses will be gunning for Kaepernick and while he was impressive last year at avoiding contact, having a running quarterback who is constantly in fear of being hit is a risky position to be in. In addition to sliding and getting out of bounds to avoid contact, the other vital step to avoiding injury is throwing the ball more often. Solid receivers are a necessary part of that equation. With Crabtree out and a very uncertain core of receivers, the tendency would be to use the skills of Kaepernick and Frank Gore and run the ball often. If the 49ers stick to the run game exclusively, they will become a one-dimensional and easily predictable offense. It will be up to this new core of receivers, whoever they end up being, to provide enough of a passing threat to allow the team to be successful on the run as well.
The stakes are different for Kaepernick this year. Despite all the hype, this is a quarterback who has yet to be a starter for a full NFL season. He is no longer new and unpredictable. Every team in the league will be ready to take him on, and he’ll need a core of receivers he can depend on to be successful. After all, once you’ve proven you can take a team to the Super Bowl once, nothing less will be enough.
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