The lesson from the 49ers' 2013 season: Colin Kaepernick and the team's offense function a lot better when he has two, high-quality wide receivers to target.
Kaepernick promises to have that dynamic for the upcoming campaign after the team on Monday agreed to a two-year deal with Anquan Boldin, who was scheduled to hit the free-agent market next week.
Boldin, 33, led the 49ers with 1,179 receiving yards last season - the team's best mark since Terrell Owens in 2002 and Boldin's highest total since 2006 - and the 49ers' coaches voted him the team's MVP. General manager Trent Baalke called Boldin the "consummate professional" in October and echoed those words on Monday.
"He is a consummate professional whose love and respect for the game provide a tremendous example for all players," Baalke said in a statement. "Anquan has been a very productive player throughout his career, and we look forward to his future contributions to our team and community."
Boldin will earn $6 million a season, precisely the salary the Baltimore Ravens determined they could not afford last year when they traded him to San Francisco for a sixth-round pick. The transaction proved crucial for the 49ers after Michael Crabtree went down with a torn Achilles' tendon in May. The injury forced Crabtree, the team's top receiver in 2012, to miss two-thirds of the season.
Boldin, however, had a near-instantaneous rapport with Kaepernick. The two looked as if they had been decade-long teammates during May practices in Santa Clara, and that chemistry was evident in their Week 1 game against the Packers as well.Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards, the second highest total of his 11-year career. The 49ers leaned on him heavily during the first half of the season, and he ended up catching all but one of the touchdown passes Kaepernick threw to a wideout in 2013. Crabtree caught the other.
Still, the 49ers offense was inconsistent until Crabtree returned to the lineup for the team's final five regular-season games. Kaepernick threw seven touchdowns and one interception in that span, his passer rating increased by nearly 15 points (from 86.6 to 101.4) and the 49ers won all five games. During that stretch and over the playoffs, San Francisco established a back-and-forth pattern in which Boldin would have a big game, defenses would adjust accordingly, and then Crabtree would be the top target the following week.
The 49ers also wanted Boldin back because of what he can impart to the team's younger wideouts. They drafted one of them, Quinton Patton, in the fourth round last year. Patton suffered a foot injury as a rookie and finished with only three receptions. Still, team officials say they liked his potential.
"I think you saw toward the end of the year he already started to make a leap," Baalke said. "And we've always maintained the most growth that takes places is between the year 1 and the year 2. And we'll expect that to happen in Quinton's case."
The 49ers are expected to take at least one receiver in May's draft, which is considered one of the deepest in recent memory when it comes to wide receivers.
Both Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh had said that re-signing Boldin was the team's top priority in free agency. Their other free agents include safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Tarell Brown and kicker Phil Dawson.The team can negotiate exclusively with those players through Saturday. After that, other teams may make contact, and free agency begins a week from Tuesday.
In addition, the 49ers have begun negotiating a long-term deal with Kaepernick, whose rookie contract expires in a year. Kaepernick is expected to seek in excess of $18 million a year, which is what Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler received in their recent deals.
-- Matt Barrows