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February 13, 2014
Look ahead: wide receiver should top 49ers' offseason priority list

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Over the next few weeks, I'll take a position-by-position look at the 49ers roster with an eye on the upcoming season and beyond. Today we examine the situation at wide receiver.

Signed for 2014: Michael Crabtree, Quinton Patton, Jon Baldwin, Chuck Jacobs, Devon Wylie, Brandon Carswell, David Reed, DeMarco Sampson

Pending free agents: Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, Kassim Osgood.

Outlook: The 49ers' first order of business is re-signing Anquan Boldin, who led the team in receiving in 2013 and who was voted - by the coaching staff - as the team's MVP. Even if that occurs, however, the 49ers must start planning for the future at the position. To me, the question isn't whether they should draft a wide receiver early in the upcoming draft. It's whether they should take two receivers over the first two days.

Boldin isn't showing any signs of slowing down. Indeed, his 1,179 yards last year were his best mark since 2006 when he was with Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. But he'll turn 34 during the upcoming season. Crabtree, meanwhile, is going into the final year of his contract and has dealt with three serious foot/lower leg injuries since entering the league in 2009. That is, as potent as the Boldin-Crabtree duo was at the end of the season, you have to wonder how long it will be together.

The 49ers also are likely to extend quarterback Colin Kaepernick's contract this offseason and would be wise to protect that investment by surrounding him with good, young pass catchers. This year's draft is considered one of the best in recent memory and is particularly deep at the wide receiver position. Having a young receiver learn the position next to Boldin for two or three years also would be ideal.

Three of those receivers fit the team's mold for big, physical pass catchers who will fight defensive backs for the ball - Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin. If the 49ers wanted any of those three, however, they probably would trade up in the first round, perhaps farther than they did last year when they jumped from pick 31 to pick 18 to grab safety Eric Reid.

The 49ers also could stand to add speed to their wide receiving corps. Oregon State's Brandin Cooks led the NCAA in receiving yards last year and is expected to run one of the fastest 40-yard dash times this month in Indianapolis. He is a possibility if the 49ers stay put at pick no. 30 this year. Other speedsters later in the draft include Wyoming's Robert Herron and Oregon's Josh Huff.

The 49ers are not expected to re-sign Manningham, who never fully returned from 2012's ACL injury, and they likely will part ways with Baldwin, who had nearly no impact after being swapped for A.J. Jenkins before the season. Cutting Baldwin will save the team $1.4 million. Osgood will be an unrestricted free agent. He was very good on special teams and could be a back for the veteran minimum. The problem is that for someone like Osgood who will be heading into his 12th year, the veteran minimum is $955,000.

Youth watch: On Wednesday I wondered (in print) whether the 49ers might try to deal former second-round pick LaMichael James in the offseason. If they did, they would have to find another return man. One possibility is Wylie, who was one of the fastest players at the 2012 scouting combine (4.36-second 40) and who performed those duties for Kansas City in the preseason. ... Observed on Wednesday: Backup quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson throwing passes to new receiver Sampson. He and Reed signed reserve/future contracts last month. Sampson has good size at 6-2, 205 pounds (with 33 ½-inch arms!). He caught 67 passes for 1,220 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior in 2010 at San Diego State. He has been on the rosters of the Cardinals, Bills and Los Angeles Kiss of the Arena League since.

Outlook: Defenses had a hard time handling Boldin and Crabtree at the end of the 2013 season, and 2014 looks bright if they are together. Beyond that, however, the position is fuzzy. The 49ers would be well-served to tap a stocked draft and to have a young player or two study under Boldin, whom general manager Trent Baalke called "the consummate professional."

Previous reviews:
* defensive line
* inside linebacker
* outside linebacker
* cornerback
* safety
* offensive line
* tight ends
* running back

-- 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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