The second week of organized team activities began for the 49ers without Michael Crabtree but with the tough task of replacing the team’s top wide receiver.
Anquan Boldin sure seemed up for the challenge. As for the other wideouts, they will likely need more time — and healthy bodies — to help fill the void.
Boldin caught the bulk of the balls during Tuesday’s practice, the first one open to reporters that he has participated in since coming to the 49ers in a trade with Baltimore in March. He looked comfortable as ever in a red No. 81 jersey — and later in a San Francisco Giants cap walking out of the locker room. With Crabtree out for the foreseeable future with a torn right Achilles tendon, Boldin could be the key to San Francisco’s depleted receiving corps this season.
“We have to make plays. The passing game goes through us. If we don’t make plays outside, we won’t be successful as an offense,” Boldin said. “It’s definitely on us to get better as a receiver corps entirely.”
Coach Jim Harbaugh has decided to put veterans on one side of the offense and have an open competition among younger players on the other for Crabtree’s spot.
Last year’s catchless first-round pick, A.J. Jenkins, and Ricardo Lockette and Quinton Patton are the leading contenders for the “X’’ role Crabtree so skillfully occupied until tearing his Achilles in 7-on-7 drills last week. Recovery time can often take as long as a year after surgery, though the team is optimistic Crabtree will return at some point in 2013.
In the meantime, the NFC champions will rely on Boldin’s experience to help groom the younger receivers into a bigger role, especially with reliable wideouts Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams both coming off serious knee injuries that occurred late in the regular season.
“Anquan is not a talkative guy,” Harbaugh said. “He’s not a small-talk guy. He’s just very serious about competing, and very serious about football and winning. I think it’ll speak volumes if the young guys observe that.”
Boldin had 65 catches for 921 yards and four touchdowns for the Ravens last season. He also caught six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore’s 34-31 win over San Francisco in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound receiver said he already feels comfortable in San Francisco’s complicated version of the West Coast offense. In his 11th year in the NFL, Boldin said he has run many of the same plays and routes throughout his career but the terminology with the 49ers is the major difference.
“For me, it’s just translating right now,” he said.
Boldin’s big frame already has made him a favorite of starter Colin Kaepernick and the other quarterbacks. While it was only one practice without full pads, he was often the first read and easily targeted more than any other player on the field, including while catching a 25-yard touchdown pass from B.J. Daniels between three defenders.
“I guess I’m looked at as being able to step in right now and make plays,” Boldin said. “And that’s what I want to bring. I want Kaep to be comfortable. I want the other quarterbacks to be comfortable enough to, even if it doesn’t look like I’m open, just give me a chance. I’ll make a play for you.”
That’s exactly what Crabtree gave Kaepernick last season.
The 25-year-old Crabtree, the team’s 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft out of Texas Tech, had career highs with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns for the 49ers last season. He was one of the biggest reasons the franchise returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years, clicking with Kaepernick after his promotion over Alex Smith in November.
More than likely, the 49ers will need a collection of players to make up for Crabtree’s loss.
Williams already was participating in some individual practice drills and said he hopes to be ready by training camp. Harbaugh has said Manningham might need more time to recover.
Jenkins and Lockette both trained with Kaepernick in the Atlanta area for about two months during the offseason. The trio even lived together in Georgia and often quizzed each other about the playbook.
Back on the practice field at 49ers headquarters, now it’s up to the veterans to help speed up the learning.
“It’s a credit to the young guys we have, they’re not afraid to come ask questions, ‘How do I do this? How do I run this route? Against this coverage, what do we do?’” Williams said. “For me, I’m happy to do that stuff because I want to see these guys progress and move along and become better players. We’ve got it. We’ve got a bunch of them. Don’t sleep on some of the young guys we have.”