The annual scouting combine begins next week, which will turn the discussion to the 49ers' offseason needs. First up: Wide receiver, a position with a lot of bodies in 2014 but not a lot of impact.
Past. Anquan Boldin finished with 83 catches and 1062 yards and was far and away the 49ers' best pass catcher -- tight ends included -- despite Michael Crabtree returning to top condition following his 2013 Achilles' tear. Boldin was Colin Kaepernick's favorite target whenever the 49ers needed a boost, and his Week 12 catch late in the game against Washington, in which he absorbed a brutal blow to the head, is a catch-of-the-year candidate for San Francisco.
Crabtree declared himself fully healthy before the season began, saying he was in far better condition than at the tail end of 2013. But he never had more than 85 yards in a game in 2014 as opposed to two 100-plus-yard outings at the end of 2013. For most of the season, No. 3 receiver Stevie Johnson was nipping at Crabtree's heels as far as passing yards despite far fewer snaps. At times, he showed a strong rapport with Kaepernick and finished with three touchdowns (Crabtree had four; Boldin had five). Johnson, however, missed the last 3 1/2 games of the season with a knee injury. He finished with 435 yards; Crabtree had 698.
Brandon Lloyd provided huge sparks for the team in wins over the Chiefs and Rams (they are the other catch-of-year candidates). Still, he caught only 14 passes all season and seemed to be phased out in the last half of the season. Over the last eight games, for example, he had three catches. With so many veteran receivers, youngsters Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington received only scant snaps. Still, they got a fair amount of playing time at the end of the season and Ellington scored two of his three touchdowns in the penultimate game of the season
Present. Crabtree and Lloyd will hit free agency next month and it seems unlikely either will be back. Crabtree clearly was frustrated with his role at the end of season, and he recently removed any mention of the 49ers from his Twitter bio. That was interpreted by some as a signal that he'll move on.
In that scenario, Boldin and Johnson would be the clear starting candidates. Boldin is signed through the 2015 season. Johnson stands to count a little more than $6 million against the salary cap and it's unknown whether the 49ers feel that cost is too steep. Patton and Ellington would play supporting roles with Ellington likely operating out of the slot -- and perhaps the backfield -- like he did at times in 2014. Ellington is the only receiver with notable speed on the team.
Future: The 49ers have used a first-round pick on a receiver three times since 2004 -- on Rashaun Woods, Crabtree and A.J. Jenkins. Two of those were dizzying misses and even Crabtree never played up to the status of being the 10th overall pick. That seems to have made the organization skittish about the position. The 2014 draft, for example, was hailed as a bumper crop for receivers, and it lived up to the billing. Still, the 49ers opted to trade for a veteran, Johnson, instead of restocking through the draft. They used one of their 12 selections on a receiver, fourth-rounder Ellington.
During their recent coaching search, at least one former defensive coordinator told team officials that, aside from Kaepernick taking off from the pocket, the 49ers didn't have any offensive weapons that worried defenses. In other words, the 49ers could use a dangerous down-field target.
The upcoming draft isn't considered as deep at receiver as last year's. However, it's solid. Names that will be linked to the 49ers at pick No. 15 include Kevin White of West Virginia and DeVante Parker of Louisville.
At 6-6, 225 pounds, Dorial Green-Beckham is the most physically gifted wideout available and one who certainly would give cornerbacks, safeties and defensive coordinators fits. However, his off-the-field baggage could scare away the 49ers who have preached "winning with class" since their recent coaching change. Another option is Ohio State's Devin Smith, who showed an uncanny knack for coming down with deep balls last season. As always, these players' 40-yard-dash times in Indianapolis will be scrutinized.
Friday, Feb. 20: Specialists, offensive linemen, tight ends
Saturday, Feb. 21: Quarterbacks, running backs wide receivers
Sunday: Feb. 22: Defensive linemen, linebackers
Monday, Feb. 23: Defensive backs
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.