San Francisco 49ers

On 49ers: Will Harbaugh loosen up the offense next season?

Perhaps the single-most intriguing 49ers item in the past two months was Jim Harbaugh’s hint last week that his offense will use more three-receiver packages in 2014.

It was enough to jolt you from what has been a mostly sleepy 49ers offseason.

Wait, what was that? Change the offense? Harbaugh suggested that? Jim Harbaugh?

Harbaugh’s teams have looked very similar since he coached the University of San Diego in 2004. This is a man who reveres Bo Schembechler and the brutish, bare-knuckles, go-right-at-’em offenses the former Michigan coach produced.

This is a man who, in an era of prolific passing attacks, loves to run the ball. While at Stanford in 2010, Harbaugh had arguably the best quarterback in the nation. Andrew Luck, however, ranked 37th in the nation in passing attempts that season.

Harbaugh’s offenses have been defined by multiple tight-end sets and a love of the fullback. When he was healthy last season, 49ers fullback Bruce Miller was on the field 60 percent of the time – unheard of in a league in which nearly one-third of the teams did not even have a fullback on their roster at the start of the season. The 49ers just signed Miller to a three-year contract extension, which only underscores their commitment to the running game.

Yet there have been hints that Harbaugh is planning to loosen up the attack a bit, and not just his words at last week’s owners’ meetings.

The 49ers considered several wideouts during free agency – Julian Edelman, Hakeem Nicks and Emmanuel Sanders – and they at least flirted with the idea of acquiring the most high-profile receiver available, DeSean Jackson. That suggests they had a plan to incorporate Jackson into an offense with Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.

The 49ers have used three wide receivers at the same time roughly 20 percent of the time in the past three seasons, one of the lowest rates in the NFL. Would Jackson – who is not exactly famous for playing the role of good soldier – have been content being on the sideline four out of every five plays? Would he have been worth the price to sign him if he only played 20 percent of the snaps? The answer to both is no.

The 49ers’ personnel at wideout in 2014 certainly will dictate how often they turn to three-receiver formations. The upcoming draft is deep at the position, and the team’s interest in players like Jackson seems to telegraph what they will be seeking in the draft. Don’t be surprised if they trade up – like they did last season – to get the guy they want.

Other offseason thoughts

There has been plenty of moaning about the team’s mere toe-dip into free agency, but this was vintage 49ers. Remember, the massive contracts for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others that are likely to come in the next two years must be balanced by the relatively cheap contracts of players who are on their rookie deals, not expensive free agents.

That will require meaningful contributions from young players, which means the 49ers must hit on draft picks, which means they must have a lot of picks to use.

So far, the team acquired only two outside free agents – safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Chris Cook – while five of their players have signed elsewhere. That included quarterback Colt McCoy, who signed with the Washington Redskins on Thursday.

That ratio will be important next year when compensatory draft picks are announced. The 49ers received an extra third-round pick this season. They could get another two picks next year. It’s all part of the team’s strategy for sustained success.

Receiver and cornerback are at the top of the 49ers’ draft list. But they also have been checking out quarterbacks and safeties.

The two backups at safety, C.J. Spillman and Craig Dahl, are signed through this season and 2015, respectively. The team also wants to bring in a quarterback who will compete with Blaine Gabbert and McLeod Bethel-Thompson for a backup role.

NaVorro Bowman held a chat Thursday on The team’s All-Pro linebacker said he had no doubt he would return to his pre-injury form. But he wrote that being back in time for the first game of the season is “out of the picture.” Expect Bowman to return somewhere around midseason.