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June 15, 2013
Deep thoughts about the 49ers spring session

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Looking for some analysis about the 49ers' recently wrapped-up spring sessions? Well, put on your floaties and goggles because I'm taking you to the deep end. Here are three thoughts:

1. When Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon last month, the 49ers' biggest offseason issue immediately became: Who will step into the void at wide receiver? The good news for the team is that there are plenty of promising candidates. A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette, Marlon Moore, Kassim Osgood and Quinton Patton all looked good at times, and perhaps no one caught more passes this spring than Chad Hall.

Still, the gap between the No. 1 receiver, Anquan Boldin, and everyone else is wide. That's obvious even to a casual observer. What the 49ers have right now is a No. 1 wideout and a bunch of Nos. 3s and 4s. What they want to see in training camp and the preseason is someone taking that next step and distinguishing himself from the pack. Who will do that? It's likely that Jenkins, given his first-round draft status and the oodles of encouragement he's gotten from coaches, will get the best opportunity to seize that role. Still, it's no guarantee that he will do so.

If no one rises to the top, look for the 49ers to start the season by rotating their receivers opposite Boldin like they did (at the position opposite Crabtree) a year ago. Kyle Williams (knee) promises to be full go by the start of training camp, and he likely will be part of that mix.

One more WR note: It was noteworthy that Boldin did not go through team drills during the last two days of the minicamp. It signals that he already has a strong mastery of the offense and a solid rapport with Colin Kaepernick; it underscores that the 49ers' most important task is evaluating the other receivers; and it shows that the 49ers realize just how disastrous an injury to both Crabtree and Boldin would be. Maybe Jim Harbaugh read my advice about freeze-drying Boldin until the regular season begins.

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2. Making predictions about the upcoming season six and half months before it ends is foolish. Only an idiot would do so. So here's my prediction about the upcoming season: The 49ers will get more out of their 2013 draft class than they received from their 2012 class last year. Heck, the current crop of rookies may outproduce the 2012 class this season as well.

Vance McDonald may have been the biggest standout among the 11-man draft class. The 6-4, 270-pound tight end showed why Rice used him so heavily as a wideout. He was a favorite for all the quarterbacks this spring, and he showed a real knack for catching passes that weren't exactly on target. McDonald has a big wingspan (34 1/2-inch arms) and a huge catching radius. He also is quite agile for his size, and on several occasions was able to twist his body and reach back for passes that were thrown behind him. Quarterbacks love to see that, and it builds confidence that he is a safe and reliable target.

The next big step for McDonald is blocking, which the 49ers could not practice during the spring sessions when contact is forbidden. How often McDonald sees the field - and how many passes go his way - will depend on how well he can block. Others who could see significant action this year are Eric Reid (it would be a disappointment if he doesn't start at safety), Tank Carradine, Corey Lemonier and Patton. Carradine has yet to practice as he continues to recover from an October ACL tear. Still, the plan remains for him to play this season and to, theoretically at least, spell Justin Smith and/or Ray McDonald at defensive end.

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3. Why do teams that lose the Super Bowl have such a hard time the following season? One of the reasons was apparent to anyone who attended the 49ers' spring practices: They are still recovering from last season. Defensive starters Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks were rehabilitating from injuries and postseason surgeries. So were Joe Staley and Mike Iupati as well as contributors like Kendall Hunter, Mario Manningham and Williams. Frank Gore also was kept off the field.

The good news for the 49ers: Patrick Willis was front and center this spring. The seven-year linebacker easily could have skipped or asked to sit out some sessions, which a number of veterans did. Instead, he was always in the mix, sometimes interspersed with backups and third stringers who are unlikely to make the team. When the minicamp ended, Willis gave a speech at midfield.

That's leadership. It serves as a great example to young players and veterans alike, and it shows that Willis is eager to begin the 2013 season. Willis isn't as vocal and charismatic as the linebacker he's most often been compared with, Ray Lewis. But he's taking ownership of the 49ers the way Lewis did the Ravens. And that's an excellent sign for the team's 2013 prospects.

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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