The San Francisco 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL, but they took a hit on Wednesday when they announced that wide receiver Michael Crabtree had suffered a torn Achilles tendon and would miss significant time. As far as bad injuries go, it's right up there with ACL tears and anything involving a player's back.
There are some positives to the situation, if you look hard enough. Crabtree has already had surgery. That is significant because that's usually postponed in this situation due to swelling, as noted at Niners Nation. In other words, they would not have attempted an operation at all if the swelling were too intense, meaning Crabtree already has a head start on his rehab.
On top of that, some have put his recovery at about the six-month mark. That means he could return, conceivably, in November. If that were true, he'd have enough time to get back into shape and be around for a playoff run. Given that the 49ers played in the Super Bowl last year, they're certainly planning on it again and can at least hope for the possibility of having Crabtree back in the lineup.
Still, the injury comes at about the worst time for Crabtree and his team. Crabtree received a lot of criticism when he entered the league due to his rookie holdout and, prior to 2012, he hadn't posted a 1,000-yard receiving season. But he put it together last year, with 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns.
As pointed out by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, quarterback Colin Kaepernick favored Crabtree big time when he took over. In his 10 starts in 2012, Kaepernick targeted Crabtree 94 times. Tied for second place were tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Randy Moss, who were targeted just 39 times.
But the 49ers do have options. They've done their best to improve at the position and find a No. 2 behind Crabtree. The roster includes some names who can step up and make things happen in his absence.
The biggest name is Anquan Boldin. A longtime division rival, Boldin joined the 49ers after the team traded the Baltimore Ravens a sixth-round pick this spring. Boldin is entering his 11th year in the NFL, but his production has been steady. Since leaving the Cardinals following the 2009 season, Boldin hasn't put up another 1,000-yard season, but he's come close.
His yardage totals since joining Baltimore: 837 yards, 887 yards and, most recently, 921 yards. On top of that, Boldin put up 380 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs, including 10 catches, 104 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl that the 49ers lost.
He was expected to come in and be the No. 2 receiver behind Crabtree, but he'll definitely be in the driver's seat next season. Whether or not he can put up close to 1,000 yards again is anybody's guess, but Boldin has always been one of the toughest players in the NFL and continued production seems likely.
Behind Boldin, the next player to step up likely won't even be a wide receiver: it will be tight end Vernon Davis. San Francisco's recent teams have always used tight ends well, but Davis and backup Delanie Walker (who signed with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent this offseason) took on diminished roles once Kaepernick took over.
Davis' numbers in 2012 were just so-so. He caught just 41 passes for 548 yards and five touchdowns, but has put up close to 1,000 yards in the past, with 2009 being his best season. That year, he caught 78 passes for 965 yards and a whopping 13 touchdowns. He's regarded as one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL, and 49ers fans are expecting him to have a bounce-back year.
There's also rookie tight end Vance McDonald, who could factor into the passing game quite a bit. Unlike some other rookies recently, the 49ers drafted McDonald on need due to Walker leaving in free agency, and they plan to utilize two-tight-end sets frequently.
Back to the wide receivers. The No. 2 last season was supposed to be Mario Manningham, but he suffered an injury late in the year. Unfortunately, Manningham likely won't be back for training camp, but he has been optimistic about being ready for the start of the regular season. Last year, Manningham had 449 yards and a touchdown in 12 games played.
Manningham will likely step right into the No. 2 role behind Boldin. At face value, it's an inspiring pairing. Both receivers have been productive in the past and should do well against No. 1 and No. 2 cornerbacks next season. It's after Manningham where things get a little fuzzy.
Kyle Williams has long been on the verge of breaking out. He's incredibly fast and agile, and many of his catches were highlight-reel plays. Unfortunately, he's better known for blowing it in the 2011 NFC Championship when he fumbled multiple times on special teams. On top of that, he also suffered an injury last season and is still recovering.
Williams, though, is expected back for the start of training camp. He's been with the 49ers for three seasons and he's consistently listed as a player who could break out. Williams will probably enter camp as the No 3 receiver, and he'll be given every opportunity to succeed. If he doesn't, then his time in San Francisco may be coming to its close.
At the very least, the 49ers have a top-three group of receivers that seem to be going somewhere. The true question marks come after Williams, with second-year wide receivers A.J. Jenkins and Ricardo Lockette, and rookie Quinton Patton.
Jenkins is the biggest name there, as the 49ers' first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Jenkins hardly saw the field last season and was only targeted once -- he didn't catch the pass. Of course, LaMichael James, the running back taken by the 49ers that year, also did not see the field for much of the season, but injuries forced the 49ers to use him.
Perhaps the plan all along was to develop Jenkins for a season, given that he was considered raw out of college and probably a reach for a first-round pick (even if it was at the back end of the round). Jenkins is regarded as a talented receiver, but confidence in him is all over the place when it comes to the fans. One can expect Jenkins to come in and compete, but he doesn't have a leg up on the competition that a recent first-round pick would seem to.
Lockette is an interesting player. He was on the practice squad last season after spending his rookie year with the Seattle Seahawks, but he's received a lot of praise from head coach Jim Harbaugh this offseason. Harbaugh said that he's "really looking forward to Ricardo Lockette's progress." He'll come into camp to compete, but his ceiling is unclear. He should get a roster spot, though, especially with the injury to Crabtree.
Then we come to Quinton Patton. Taken in the fourth round of this year's NFL Draft, Patton not only has better college tape than Jenkins, he was more well-known and many think he has a higher ceiling. Aside from a few struggles with his route running, he seems more NFL-ready as well. Many are picking him to be one of the under-the-radar breakout rookies. With Crabtree's injury, that certainly means he'll have more of a chance.
But not all bets can be placed on those young receivers. With the way the injuries have gone, the 49ers do have question marks beyond Boldin as the No. 1 receiver. Were it not for a strong group of tight ends and the fact that Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, Anthony Dixon and possibly Marcus Lattimore anchor one of the league's best rushing attacks, there might be panic.
When it comes to potential replacements in free agency, it really is slim pickings. That is to say, there's almost nobody of note still available. The team is adamant that Randy Moss is not an option despite his contributions last season, which leaves guys like Brandon Lloyd, Brandon Stokley, Devin Aromashodu, Devery Henderson, Steve Breaston, Laurent Robinson and Braylon Edwards as the next-best options.
It's hard to see any of those players producing at this point in their careers. San Francisco may sign one of them to come in and compete, but even with the roster's question marks, the team would likely depend on who's there more than any outside signing. The only way it's likely for them to bring in one of these guys would be further injury or setbacks to either Williams' or Manningham's recoveries.
The 49ers have been a run-first team, and that stems from their strong group of running backs and all the way up to their quarterback, who may legitimately have a shot at rushing for 1,000 yards in a season at some point. It hurts to lose Crabtree, but at the same time, the 49ers do have options on the roster. If the passing game does regress, they've got that running game and one of the best defenses in the NFL to lean on.