The 49ers' training-camp battles were mostly shrug-worthy until May 21. That's when Michael Crabtree, the team's best wideout since Terrell Owens skipped town in 2004, suffered a complete tear of his right Achilles' tendon, an injury that will cost him most, in not all, of the 2013 season. With that injury, wide receiver suddenly became the focus of the 49ers' offseason.
Anquan Boldin alleviated some of the concern this spring by looking as if he'd been playing with Colin Kaepernick for 10 years rather than a few weeks. But the player who will line up most often opposite Boldin remains unknown. It's clear the contenders have talent. Also clear is that none has much experience. The coaching staff is tailoring a competition that will give each of the following players plenty of practice snaps and plenty of opportunities. Their hope is that at least one or two rises above the rest.
1. A.J. Jenkins. He's listed first on this list largely because he's likely to be given the best opportunity to succeed this summer. Jenkins is a former first-round pick, and both Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman had high praise for him in June. It was similar to the encouraging words Harbaugh heaped onto Alex Smith in 2011 and Michael Crabtree in 2012. Every year Harbaugh seems to pick out a player who has not achieved his full potential and tries to prop up his confidence with praise. The strategy appears to work. Smith led his team to the NFC Championship game in 2011 and Crabtree had his best season ever last year.
Jenkins, meanwhile, spent the offseason working on his biggest weakness in 2012 -- his strength. It was hard to tell whether he made strides during the non-contact practices in the spring, but Jenkins is noticeably more confidant than he was a year ago when he seemed to end up on the ground on every third play. Training camp, and especially the preseason, will be the true test for Jenkins, who must prove he can operate in spaces far tighter and more violent than those he experienced at Illinois. If he succeeds, his quickness and fluidity would be a nice complement to Boldin's aggressive style. It's also possible that Jenkins will operate out of the slot where he would have more space with which to work.
Ricardo Lockette. If you went into the lab and created the prototypical wide receiver, you would come out with Lockette. He's the fastest 49er, he's big and muscular, he's sharp and he appears to have the desire to be an NFL starter. Oh, and he's also best friends with Kaepernick. (The two spent the offseason training together and they are housemates in Santa Clara). Lockette's track speed would provide a nice one-two punch with Boldin and would force defenses to keep a safety deep like they did last season when Randy Moss was on the field. That, in turn, would benefit Frank Gore and every other offensive player. The mystery with Lockette is, well, why he's still a mystery. He's 27 years old and has never been close to a dominant receiver, even at tiny Fort Valley State. Is he a late bloomer or a perennial underachiever? We'll find out over the next two months. After all, he's never received the opportunity he's getting now.
Kyle Williams. Williams' eagerness to join teammates during the spring practices was palpable. He was like a panther pacing in a cage as he watched from the sidelines and rehabilitated on his own in May and June. Williams even participated in some of the practices toward the end, signaling that he is nearly recovered from his November ACL tear and that he will be back for training camp. Williams is smart, he's fiery, he's got a good rapport with Kaepernick and he's the only healthy receiver who actually has caught a pass for the 49ers in a real game. The question is whether the team could count on him to be an every-down receiver. The undersized Williams has an injury history that goes back to Arizona State. He's missed time in each of the last two seasons despite not having a full-time role. He has done an excellent job of bulking up over the past three years (take note, A.J. Jenkins) and his spot on the team seems secure considering he can return punts. But it's difficult to envision Williams starting 16 games as the X receiver.
Quinton Patton. The 49ers' rookie pick isn't particularly fast or particularly big. What he excels in is eagerness and desire (see: late April plane saga), and that may be the most important trait of all for an NFL wide receiver. Patton certainly seemed to adjust quickly to the NFL game, and during OTAs and minicamp it was hard to tell that he was a rookie. (Not a difficult task last year with Jenkins). Late fourth-round picks who are drafted by Super Bowl teams rarely get a chance to play much less have an impact. Patton may be the rookie who is the exception to that rule.
Marlon Moore. The Sacramento native rarely is mentioned when the 49ers receiving competition is discussed. Moore, however, was one of the more prolific receivers during OTAs and minicamp (at least during the sessions that were open to the media) and he earned a mention from Harbaugh as the minicamp wrapped up. Like Williams, he has an advantage in that he plays special teams. Moore was a gunner on punt coverage for the Dolphins, a role that underscores his toughness and one that could be a real asset when Harbaugh sits down with Brad Seely and the rest of his assistants prior to roster cut-down day. Moore also has deep speed. San Francisco never took advantage of Kaepernick's ability to hurl the ball deep down field last year, and it's something they could stand to add to their repertoire this season.
Kassim Osgood. If the 49ers wanted a veteran version of Moore, they'd go with Osgood, who also has been able to a carve a niche for himself in the past on special teams coverage units. At 6-5, 220 pounds, Osgood is by far the biggest of the wide-receiver challengers, and he'd fit in nicely with the 49ers' physical approach on offense. Osgood's 44 career receptions is not very notable apart from the fact that they make him the most experienced of the 49ers' wide-receiver challengers. The downside: At 33, he is the only one of that group in his 30s.
Chad Hall. No 49er caught more practice passes this spring than Hall, who often was the quarterback's check-down option in OTAs and minicamp. Hall is unique in that he can line up at receiver and in the backfield as a running back. He's also a hard worker who earned a role during the NFC Championship game after injuries had thinned the 49ers' wide receiving corps. Hall, however, is very small for an NFL player. Only players with exceptional quickness tend to stick around at that size, and the 49ers seem to already have someone who fits that profile in LaMichael James.
Others: Neither Crabtree nor Mario Manningham will be ready for the start of training camp and both could land on the physically unable to perform list before camp begins. Undrafted rookie Chuck Jacobs and newly signed Charly Martin round out the list at receiver.
-- Matt Barrows