Despite 11 draft picks and a major trade, the 49ers will kick off another season with a question mark at wide receiver.
Michael Crabtree is expected to be out for a large part of the 2013 season after tearing his Achilles tendon in an organized team workout on Tuesday, reopening a hole the 49ers thought they filled after his breakout year last fall.
The 49ers devoted the offseason last year to solving their receiver woes after squeezing a grand total of one catch for 3 yards out of the position in the 2012 NFC Championship Game. They brought in Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, while investing their first-round pick on A.J. Jenkins, an All-Big Ten Conference receiver out of Illinois.
But Manningham tore his ACL, Moss proved to be past his prime and Jenkins didn’t catch a single ball all year. It didn’t matter, though, because Crabtree emerged as a legitimate go-to guy once Colin Kaepernick took the reins at quarterback. As the new-look 49ers’ offense took off, Crabtree finally lived up to the promise he showed before he was chosen with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
The 49ers will miss Crabtree’s 85 catches, 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns, but the injury isn’t a deathblow to their Super Bowl aspirations by any means.
Despite the loss, Kaepernick should have plenty of targets to hit. General manager Trent Baalke acquired Anquan Boldin in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens in March, and he’s more than capable of being a No. 1 guy in Crabtree’s absence. Boldin is turning 33 in October, but last year he still managed to rack up 921 yards on 65 catches, and in a more explosive offense, he should be able to reach the 1,000-yard plateau.
Jenkins was invisible throughout his rookie campaign, but it’s too early to write him off completely. He’s spent his offseason working out with Kaepernick and could step up and make a contribution as a No. 3 receiver.
Manningham will be a solid second option when he returns and the 49ers signed fourth-round pick Quinton Patton on Wednesday, a kid who is already making coach Jim Harbaugh drool with his work ethic.
It won’t be a cake walk, though. The NFL moves fast and Harbaugh spent his spring in an arms race with Pete Carroll, who beefed up the Seattle Seahawks’ attack by adding Percy Harvin in March.
The St. Louis Rams are also creeping up in the rearview mirror after a strong draft performance and the Arizona Cardinals’ defense could be salty if Tyrann Mathieu has turned the corner in his personal life. The margin of error is thin and every setback brings them closer to the pack.
But Achilles surgery isn’t a full-year death sentence anymore and Harbaugh said he expects Crabtree to return at some point.
The 49ers should be able to hang in there for a couple of months if Crabtree can return to the gridiron by November or December.
Sure, the 49ers would be in a better position if this had happened before draft day, but ultimately, this injury isn’t going to decide whether they return to the Super Bowl next February.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.