The San Francisco 49ers passing offense has been a work in progress throughout Jim Harbaugh's tenure, and it has led to exasperation at times for fans. The 49ers have a big arm in Colin Kaepernick, and a trio of great pass catchers in Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. Unfortunately, there were too many times when the 49ers could not get enough open receivers for one reason or another. Head coach Jim Harbaugh discussed that during his hour-long breakfast meeting with the press (Part 1, Part 2).
Harbaugh talked about Colin Kaepernick and the notion of him being a one-read quarterback.
-Q: Some analysts who have played the game and study it referred to Kaepernick as a one-read quarterback, that he locks onto his first guy and doesn't come off him. Was he guilty of that last year? Can he do a better job of going through his progression?
-HARBAUGH: Uh, no. Some of the time there was just one guy to go to. And there was times where we had Anquan, we had Vernon, they were literally doubling Anquan and doubling Vernon.
And he had one other option to go to. And sometimes that wasn't one, sometimes he would fit it in there. Shoe horn it in.
But there was tough sledding at times. And it's on all of us to make it better. It's on the players-let's get another really good option besides Anquan, besides Michael, besides Vernon. We talked about that earlier.
But there were times in the 2013 season where his options was just get to one guy.
This led to a discussion about the team's need for a third wide receiver. There have been some tweets and comments about Coach Harbaugh discussing this issue. Tim Kawakami provided this transcript (linked above), and it allows us to read into the comments a little bit more.
Harbaugh was asked about whether Kap needs to work on getting into a comfort zone with receivers other than Boldin, Crabtree and Davis.
Yeah, I think it's more somebody stepping up and being that next guy. We've had a lot of people try, a lot of people competing for that spot. But whether it's Quinton Patton... somebody... step into that and be that next guy that makes plays for our football team... it'd be very beneficial for our team.
Be that third wide receiver. That's Vance McDonald-be that Delanie Walker, be that next guy that makes big plays from the tight end position.
He was more specifically asked about the third wide receiver position, and he brought up the notion of finding competition for Quinton Patton:
-Q: Are you looking for big-time competition for Patton at the third WR slot-from a draft pick or a veteran?
-HARBAUGH: Yeah, the way you said it was good. No. 3 receiver, you know a third guy that can get open, make plays, another option for the quarterback to go to, a chance to attack all areas of the field, a play maker.
So that's what we're looking for.
Some view this as an indictment of Patton. In reality, I think this means they're looking for someone who will step up. It could be Quinton Patton, it could be a receiver drafted this year, or it could even be a guy like Jon Baldwin. While we saw some things from Patton in the preseason and late in the season, there was not a consistent third wide receiver during the season.
This also led to questions about the team's use of three wide receiver sets. The 49ers did not spend much time in such sets, with the most frequent occurrence happening on third down.
We've mainly done that in third down, yeah. But doesn't mean we couldn't do it on first and second down.
The team could split Vernon Davis out wide for a 3-WR set, but ideally the team can find a more consistent option, thus keeping Vernon on the field at times in his tight end role. Last year, the team could never even try and get comfortable in extended wide receiver sets. The addition of Anquan Boldin opened the door for some opportunities, but then the loss of Crabtree cut that off. The team had extra receivers, but when Jon Baldwin and company are bumped up a notch on the depth chart, you have fewer receivers Kap is comfortable with on the field.
If the 49ers can get to training camp with a somewhat full contingent of wide receivers, it potentially opens the door for more preparation in 3+ wide receiver sets. I don't expect the 49ers offense to be overhauled with this, but the 49ers would have more opportunities to practice in these sets. That could be the difference in getting more 3-WR sets in the offense. It leaves me cautiously optimistic, no matter what the 49ers do at wide receiver in the draft. They need depth and long-term options, but with Crabtree, Boldin, and Patton, they can already start to make it interesting.