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Niners Nation #Channel49 Twitter Q&A Mailbag, Vol. 11: Michael Crabtree, How to Replace Him & More

This week's edition of our #Channel49 Q&A session was predictably highjacked by the Michael Crabtree injury. I had wanted to talk about the long snapper situation and the No.5 CB battle before having the rug pulled from under me. This is why, as my mother would say, we can't have nice things.

Ask not what Crabtree can do for you, but what you can do for Crabtree.
Ask not what Crabtree can do for you, but what you can do for Crabtree.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday afternoon I sat down alone and discussed Michael Crabtree's injury and its ramifications for the 49ers. When the injury first occurred, I thought I would be sick. Then the panic subsided. We were a favorite last year, with Crabtree going into the year coming off of an 800 yard and 4 touchdown campaign. Anquan Boldin will cover that. The depth is better this season and if any of the youngsters can step up, we've got it sorted. And then you think about all of the non-receiver weapons in the passing game. It's going to be OK. My internal pessimist cringes.

So, understandably, most of the questions and comments in the session dealt with this most pressing of topics. Who makes up for the production? Who fills the roster spot? Save us Harbaalke!

Well this question could be rendered outdated by the time the post goes live. The depth behind new No. 1 Anquan Boldin is riddled with question marks. Mario Manningham is still slow recovering from his own leg injury. The rest of the guys are unproven commodities in Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette. Might the team sign a veteran? I won't pretend to know for sure, but it's not a bad idea. The restructuring of Jonathan Goodwin's contract means that we have some money to play with. Two names that are popping up repeatedly are Devery Henderson and Brandon Lloyd. During the Q&A I wittily gave Lloyd the nod based on familiarity with Candlestick Park, but nobody laughed.

What I do know, is that if the 49ers sign veteran help, it is a subtle hint to what the front office and coaching staff think about the youngsters and their readiness to step up. I don't think we're ready for another AJ debate...let's wait a few months. But remember when Adam Snyder vacated the right guard position before 2012 and the team made no moves to replace him. We all collectively thought, "what the hell?" They knew they had the answer on the roster, even before training camp. That's not to say one of our young receivers won't have a breakout year, but you get my point.

This is a huge subtext to the Michael Crabtree injury that feels a bit naughty to be asking so soon after the event, but hey, we've got to cover it all. He's signed through 2014 and it appears that 2013, while he may be able to return late in the year, may be a wash. Last season was the first in which he participated in training camp and the preseason and the result was his elevation to near-elite status. If you look at his career stats, they're less than stellar. His career averages are 65 receptions, 836 yards and 5 touchdowns. Quarterback play can be cited as a reason for the low numbers. So can his rookie holdout and lack of participation in offseason programs.

His value will basically be determined by his 2014 campaign. A '14 that matches his production from last season would likely see him able to command top dollar. There's no pressure on Crabtree to renegotiate. His rookie contract paid him handsomely. Players may try to force their teams' hand after a great year. Had he not been injured, he very well could have been the next in the long line of young stars getting locked in. At this point, it's probably best for Crabs to wait until he can reestablish his worth.

The depth chart is a mess. Not that there's not talent and potential there. But who sits where is highly debatable. I'm sure we'll spend much of the summer doing just that. Mario Manningham, when healthy, and Kyle Williams are the two most likely candidates for the slot with A.J. Jenkins, if he makes strides, a possible contender. On the outside it looks like Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette are the main possibilities. We may also see LaMichael James being used in ways we haven't seen before. He's so dangerous in open space and is a home run threat at all times.

Lockette's name was on people's lips before the draft. Harbaugh singled him out as a player to watch and we do whatever Coach says. Before Crabtree went down, I thought Lockette would have a tough time making the roster. Now it looks like he's got a great shot at it and can even steal the starting job. We can assume there will be an open competition all summer long with everyone having an equal chance. You can't ask for a better chance than that if you're a 3rd-year pro with 2 career catches.

Vernon Davis is the player who needs to step up the most in Crabtree's absence. He has the size and strength to test defenses in ways that few tight ends can. He has an entire offseason to develop the chemistry with young Colin Kaepernick that was so obviously missing last year once Kaep took over. Crabtree is a great blocker and so is Davis. Both of their work in the run game, on quarterback scrambles and on passing plays after the catch has been much celebrated. Crabtree will be missed there.

We could see Vernon take on more of a Swiss Army Knife role, a role previously held by Delanie Walker. Rookie TE Vance McDonald was frequently used outside in college, so Vernon has the experience on the line, which may keep him cemented there. We could see either of them go outside at any given point. Wherever he lines up, I'd love to see 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Another option in the passing attack, as mentioned above, is LaMichael James. I felt he was underutilized in the passing game last year once he took over for Kendall Hunter as the primary backup. Getting him the ball in one-on-one situations should be one of the goals for the new season. Darren Sproles' 2011 campaign was excellent. He had 603 yards rushing with a 6.9 yard per carry average to go with 86 catches for 710 yards and a combined 9 touchdowns. If we can get half of that from LaMichael James it would be amazing. James has the talent to take on that kind of role and make it happen and our coaching staff has the creativity to get him there. I'd like a healthy serving of motion out of the backfield with a side of isolation against slower defenders.

Finally, a non-passing game question. I hadn't given this much thought until it was posed, but the idea is intriguing. Kaepernick's speed and ever-present threat to break long runs has defenses on their toes and tense at all times. Allowing defenses no time to regroup, reset and take a breath would be incredible. Alas, I don't think it's possible yet. Peyton Manning, who has a solid claim to be called the greatest mind to ever play quarterback, didn't begin running the no-huddle until 2001, his 4th year in the league. Running a hurry-up offense requires experience, which, let's face it, Kaepernick lacks. More time and more looks from defenses are the only thing that will change that.

That said, I think running out series' of scripted plays with no huddle at a given point in a game could get interesting. Options based on down and distance with a general idea of what the team wants to do in the situation already established might be more viable than letting Kaepernick run an audible-based no-huddle offense. Another year or two under Harbaugh's tutelage and I may change my tune.

Being a Sheep

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