While the San Francisco 49ers are atop the NFC West at 5-1, the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals have a combined record of 3-15 in 2011. Better yet, the 49ers are getting a big time playmaker back in Braylon Edwards coming off the bye to face his old team, the Cleveland Browns at Candlestick Park.
Edwards will be returning at a crucial time, after San Francisco lost their leading receiver Josh Morgan late in the Tampa Bay game. Without Edwards, San Francisco has managed their best start since 1998 but could still benefit from more explosive plays on offense. Quarterback Alex Smith has been using all of his available weapons in the new west coast system; moving the ball efficiently.
With Edwards back, Smith and the offense could take a leap on the stats board. Edwards brings the same intensity to the offense that Patrick Willis brings to the defense. He is a big, lengthy receiver who will attack the ball at it's highest point and provide a deep threat for an injured receiving corps.
Additionally, he is going to take pressure off the other options, especially tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore. Now, coming to San Francisco, he is yet to prove himself in red and gold but with 10+ games remaining in 2011 (accounting for a likely playoff appearance), Edwards has time to win over the team and the fans.
Of course, it must be noted that Edwards is coming off a "minor" knee surgery, so head coach Jim Harbaugh will likely ease him into the lineup. The wide receiver has seen only limited action this season, but expects to take on a much bigger role considering the absence of Josh Morgan. 49ers fans will finally get to see the tandem of Edwards and Michael Crabtree in action, where Crabtree could find himself as more of a threat as the number two.
The 49ers face Cleveland in week 8; a team who struggled mightily against the Seahawks, barely squeezing out a 6-3 win. The Niners are a much better football team and pending the normalcy in the NFL that day, San Francisco will likely push their record to 6-1.
It's going to be interesting to see how Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman plan to use Edwards, now that they are 6 games in and have sort of found a rhythm. We've seen Vernon Davis and Ted Ginn Jr. on designed runs and a lot of other creativity in the offense, including taking advantage of mismatches. Whether or not they plan to use Edwards like that is still unclear, but I'm sure they'd like to get him matched up on some undersized cornerbacks.
The biggest impact he might have is his ability to stretch the field, opening the short passing game which is a staple of the west coast offense -- short, high percentage passes. Crabtree and Ginn Jr. should benefit greatly from that, because they are receiver's who excel after the catch. Edwards' return could potentially be the difference for San Francisco as a playoff contender.
The free agent acquisition was only signed to a 1-year deal, so he's playing for a job next year, either for San Francisco or elsewhere. However, if he performs and San Francisco continues to improve like they have, a mutual decision between player and organization may be struck where Edwards would be re-signed.
[Edwards is rumored to be activated for the home game against the Cleveland Browns in week 8]
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