The 49ers are seeking wide receivers this offseason and, coach Jim Harbaugh hinted, perhaps some tweaks to their power-based offense.
“A real good scheme evaluation, I think, is what’s next for us as coaches,” Harbaugh said Wednesday at a media breakfast. “Now that we’ve had Colin (Kaepernick) here for a year and half and understand what we all do well, what we could do better. I think that’s something that’s a priority right now that we’ll attack.”
Will they be big changes?
“No, not big changes,” he said. “But always be (evolving), always strive to make it better.”
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As is his custom, Harbaugh lavished praise on his starting quarterback and defended him against criticism, including accusations he’s a one-read passer.
“Some of the time there was just one guy to go to,” Harbaugh said. “There were times we had Anquan (Boldin) and Vernon (Davis). And they were literally doubling Anquan and Vernon. And he had one other option to go to. ... There was tough sledding. It’s up to all of us to get better.”
One way to improve, Harbaugh said more than once, is to supply Kaepernick with more weapons. When receiver Michael Crabtree was injured last season, the 49ers’ passing game revolved around two players – Boldin and Davis – who caught all but one of Kaepernick’s 24 touchdown passes during the regular season and playoffs.
The situation improved when Crabtree returned in December, but Harbaugh indicated more firepower is needed. He and general manager Trent Baalke like Quinton Patton, a fourth-round pick in 2013 who was injured for half of his rookie season. This year’s draft, however, is especially rich in wideouts, and the 49ers are likely to give Patton competition for the No. 3 receiver spot.
The 49ers also have considered wide receivers in free agency, including Julian Edelman, Hakeem Nicks and Emmanuel Sanders. All of them signed elsewhere.
“There was a stretch last year where he didn’t have (many receiving options), and he played through it,” Harbaugh said of Kaepernick. “And never an excuse, never a bony finger of blame toward anybody. There was definitely times where we were just not getting guys open for him.”
One tweak the 49ers likely have in store is the way they call plays. The process to this point has been long and cumbersome, and it’s resulted in a slew of delay-of-game penalties and timeouts. The potential winning play in the 2013 Super Bowl, for example, was wiped out after time was called because the play clock was about to expire.
The Seahawks, who throttled San Francisco’s passing game last season, including in the NFC Championship Game, also may force Harbaugh and the 49ers to make changes.
One of the few teams that gave Seattle’s aggressive defense problems last year was the Colts, who beat the Seahawks 34-28. In that game, Andrew Luck threw for two touchdowns, both to receiver T.Y. Hilton, who finished with five catches for 140 yards.
Boldin and Crabtree are physical, aggressive receivers mostly used in the short to medium passing game. Asked if the 49ers could use a swift, downfield threat like Hilton in their offense, Harbaugh said “it’s something that we’ll look at addressing.”
Acquiring that type of receiver also could prompt the 49ers to use more three wide-receiver formations. Dating to his time at the University of San Diego, Harbaugh’s offenses have been decidedly brawny and run-oriented, and he has preferred using two tight ends or a running back and a fullback instead of three receivers. In fact, San Francisco has used the formation roughly 20 percent of the time over the last three seasons, the lowest rate in the league.
“We’ve mainly done that on third down,” Harbaugh said before pausing and continuing coyly, “but it doesn’t mean we can’t do it on first and second down.”