San Francisco 49ers

49ers look ahead: Deep thoughts about WR crew

Over the last few days, I’ve been ranking the 49ers position groups from strongest to weakest. Next up ...

Wide receiver

Recap. To say the 49ers had duplicates at wide receiver last season would be inaccurate. They had triplicates. In Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Stevie Johnson, the team had three bigger-body receivers who were very good in the short and intermediate passing game but who didn't scare defensive coordinators when it came to the deep ball. Boldin, who nearly instantaneously became Colin Kaepernick's favorite target when he arrived in 2013, led the team in receiving for the second straight year, finishing with 1,062 yards. The 49ers' best deep threat was 33-year-old Brandon Lloyd, who averaged 21 yards a catch but only had 14 catches. Crabtree, Johnson and Lloyd moved on in the offseason.

Outlook. The team added Torrey Smith and Jerome Simpson in free agency and drafted DeAndre Smelter in the fourth round. No one will call this is an elite group. But it's at least diverse in its talents, which is something you couldn't say in previous years. The plan in 2015 is to have enough deep threats -- Smith, tight end Vernon Davis and perhaps Simpson -- to prevent defenses from loading the box against the run and loosening up the middle of the field in the passing game. Smith's presence presumably will give Boldin more room to roam. (By the same logic, Crabtree ought to do well in Oakland where he will be complemented by rookie deep threat Amari Cooper). Of course, the deep game also will be impacted by how well the offensive line blocks and how accurate Kaepernick is with the long ball, something he hasn't done often heretofore in his NFL career. The 49ers are optimistic Smelter can suit up at some point this season. Still, he tore his ACL in November and there's no sense in rushing him into action. Bruce Ellington was a quasi receiver-running back along the lines of Percy Harvin and Randall Cobb late in the 2014 season, a role he is likely to resume this year. Quinton Patton only received scant snaps late last season because the position was so crowded. Still, it's hard to see him having a big role this year either unless there are injuries at the position. Because the 49ers drafted only one receiver in Smelter -- and because he's also dealing with a major injury -- San Francisco became a desirable landing spot for undrafted rookie receivers. Two showed promise this spring -- Utah's Dres Anderson and DeAndrew White.

Question marks. Smith was a very good deep threat in Baltimore. But he also had an excellent deep-ball quarterback in Joe Flacco. It remains to be seen whether he can duplicate his success with another passer. (Though there were positive signs in the spring). If he can't, the 49ers will have done something they almost never do in free agency -- overpaid. ... Anderson and White looked good in the spring when there was no hitting and plenty of room to roam. How will they fare in training camp when guys like cornerback Chris Cook can put their hands on them at the line of scrimmage? ... The 49ers took troubled cornerback Perrish Cox off the scrap heap several years ago and their risk paid off. Can they do the same with Simpson, who gives them another legitimate deep threat and is perhaps the best leaper on the team?

Person of interest. Boldin is the 49ers' most vital pass catcher. But he's so rock solid and consistent that you know exactly what you're getting. The wild card is Smith, who was Trent Baalke's most expensive free-agent acquisition ever. Smith is smart, mature and excellent in the community. And in that way, the investment already is worthwhile for a team dealing with image issues. But will he have the dramatic effect on the offense the 49ers are envisioning? It looks good on paper. Will it translate to the field?

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49ers position ranking:

1. outside linebacker

2. safety

3. defensive line

4. running back

5. wide receiver

6. coming Wednesday

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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