Looking back just a few short months ago, it would have been difficult to pinpoint a San Francisco 49ers’ player who might have been primed for a breakout season. After all, they were set on both sides of the ball at almost every position with established NFL talent. A case could have made for rookies like Eric Reid, Tank Carradine, or Vance McDonald but they would most likely need some time to get acclimated. Their breakthrough years are probably in the near future rather than the present.
The 49ers looked almost pleasantly predictable in terms of performance going into 2013. All of that changed in May, however, when Michael Crabtree was lost for most of the season. While losing Crabtree is a major blow to this Super Bowl contender, injuries breed opportunity. The Niners will need someone to step up in the number two receiver role opposite Anquan Boldin and with Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams coming off of injuries, the door is wide open for someone to step up in 2013.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has said the number two receiver role is a competition between A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette, and Quinton Patton. The player who come out on top will see significant snaps and has the opportunity to become a major player in the passing game for the 49ers.
At this point, Jenkins story is well known. The 49ers’ 2012 first round pick barely saw the field last season and when he did he was highly ineffective. He dropped the only pass thrown his way. Wide receiver is a position that usually takes time to get used to in the NFL and many wide outs take a year or two before they start to show signs of being a factor.
The 49ers hope this is the case with Jenkins and early reports out of mini camp were promising.
“Thought A.J. had his best week of football since he’s been a 49er the last four days of OTAs,” said Harbaugh. “And he continues to build on that. … Anybody that’s going from Year 1 to Year 2, it’s a great window of opportunity to improve in the kind of fashion that you’ll never have again in your career. Because you’re going from doing things for the first time to now everything that you do, you’ve already done.”
What happens with Jenkins this season will tell a lot about his future with the franchise. If he makes strides and is a significant part of the passing game, the future will look bright. If not, his days in San Francisco could be numbered.
Lockette’s combination of size and speed make him an intriguing prospect. He is 6’2, weighs 211 pounds and ran a 4.37 40 yard dash at the 2011 scouting combine. He flashed some ability with the Seattle Seahawks but was ultimately released by them before being added to the 49ers’ practice squad. Lockette is very close with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The two were roommates last year and have trained together this offseason. Lockette said his time working with Kaepernick has helped him get a better understanding of the 49ers’ offense.
“The way he breaks down plays and just working one-on-one with him, it’s made me a different receiver,” Lockette said. “It’s like night and day just learning the playbook from someone you can totally relate to. He understands how you think.”
Lockette would be a good compliment to Boldin because of his ability to stretch the field. While Boldin is more of a possession receiver, Lockette could give him more room to operate underneath as the defense would need to account for his big play ability. Lockette may be on the cusp of being someone who can contribute week in and week out for the 49ers.
“I’m really looking forward to Ricardo Lockette’s progress,” Harbaugh said. “I can’t wait to see what he does. A real inflection point for him is coming.”
While Patton will have every opportunity to win the starting spot, he falls in the same category as the other rookies on the squad. It will take him time to adjust to the speed of the game but he has shown dedication early on. Patton was taken in the fourth round of the 2013 draft and could end up being a steal at that spot. Some experts had him as a second round talent and in the same league as some of the top receivers in the draft.
Patton put up big numbers at the collegiate level playing in Louisiana Tech’s spread offense. He gained 2,544 yards and scored 24 touchdowns in two seasons. While he did play at a smaller school, that kind of production can’t be denied.
It still remains to be seen what Patton will be able to bring to the 49ers. In an ideal world, he would make strides over the next couple of seasons and be ready to step in and start in 2015 should the team lose Crabtree to free agency and/or Jenkins and Lockette do not work out.
Photo Credit: (Mark Humphrey/AP)
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