Listening to Colin Kaepernick talk about his current group of wide receivers is a bit like sitting down with a kid as he shows off his favorite action figures.
Anquan Boldin is great because he’ll smash through anything to make a catch. Michael Crabtree’s hands are so quick and strong he can snatch passes even in heavy traffic.
Brandon Lloyd is a master of deception. “He’s got a little different wiggle to him as far as quick routes, which makes him very hard to defend,” the 49ers quarterback said.
And Stevie Johnson? Well, he’s the mystery man of the bunch, someone Kaepernick described as “unorthodox.”
“I think the fact that he moves the way he does, he sets things up the way he does, makes him very hard to defend,” Kaepernick said. “And I think (defensive backs) know that.”
Last season, of course, Kaepernick’s toy chest was decidedly less full, one reason the 49ers finished the season ranked 30th in passing yards. The influx at wide receiver over the offseason is the biggest change from 2013, and it’s perhaps the team’s best hope for surviving what promises to be a challenging start to the 2014 season.
The 49ers will begin without arguably their two most talented players – linebacker NaVorro Bowman, the team’s leading tackler three years running who is coming back from an ACL tear suffered in January, and pass rusher Aldon Smith.
Bowman is eligible to come back after Week 6, although a Week 9 return following the 49ers’ bye seems the most plausible. Smith, who will miss nine games after being suspended by the NFL on Friday, is eligible to return Nov. 10.
It’s the reverse of last year, when the offense suffered a major loss, Crabtree’s Achilles’ tendon tear, then limped along after tight end Vernon Davis suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2.
The defense came to the rescue, allowing an average of 14 points after a Week 3 loss to Indianapolis and turning a teetering start to the season into another playoff berth.
This year, the onus will be on Kaepernick, who is eager to prove the offense, particularly the passing game, isn’t San Francisco’s weak link.
“Regardless of whether Aldon is playing or when NaVorro comes back, I think offensively we’re trying to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he said. “We have more weapons on offense, we’re more experienced on offense, and at this point we feel that we should be able to put up more points in each game. Now, it’s a matter of going out and doing that.”
After he threw for just 91 yards in a 10-9 loss to the Panthers last year, Kaepernick drew criticism, including from ESPN analyst and former 49er Trent Dilfer, who said Kaepernick became a “remedial” passer once his first read was taken away.
Dilfer said he wishes he had chosen a different word. But his take on how Kaepernick must improve hasn’t changed.
“His issue is the same as almost every young quarterback, whether it’s (Robert Griffin) III, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton or Ryan Tannehill,” Dilfer said. “And that’s going into that graduate-level work when it comes to coordination between your feet and your eyes as you go through your progressions.”
Kaepernick noted that was a difficult task last year, considering his opponents knew he had two true targets: Boldin and Davis.
“It was a little bit of a struggle for a while as far as, ‘How are we going to try to get the matchups we want?’ or, ‘How are we going to try to manipulate defenses?’ ” Kaepernick said. “They were comfortable in soloing up everyone else so they could double Anquan, so they could double Vernon and take one of them out of the game or even both of them out of the game and letting everyone else go one on one. And when you can’t win in those matchups, it’s tough. And I think that’s where we had to fight through the beginning of last year until we got a couple of our playmakers back.”
The most interesting member of this year’s reinforced receiving corps may be Johnson.
While Kaepernick had nearly immediate chemistry last year with then-newcomer Boldin and his straightforward style, he admits it’s taken longer to figure out Johnson, a San Francisco native who spent his first six seasons with Buffalo.
Johnson isn’t surprised. He’s not as fast or quick as some top receivers in the league and has made up for that by running routes a little differently than most.
“It’s a gift and a curse,” Johnson said. “Because it can take some time to build chemistry with quarterbacks.”
The gift, of course, is that defensive backs also have trouble reading his body language. Some of the best in the league, from Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis to Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, have struggled to stick with Johnson in previous seasons.
Sherman, in fact, had one of his worst performances against Johnson and the Bills two years ago in a contest in which Johnson had eight catches for 115 yards and a touchdown.
Trent Baalke, the 49ers’ general manager who traded a fourth-round pick for Johnson, noticed that game. So did Kaepernick.
“I mean, he’s had big games against a lot of big-name corners,” Kaepernick said. “We’re excited about it. And we want to get on the field, get him the ball and allow him to keep having those big games.”