Some times projecting roster spots is easy. You take the top X number of guys at the position and that's who makes the roster, with X being how many are usually kept at that position. However, if you apply that logic to the wide receiver position, you could end up in a bit of a pickle.
Many believe that Austin Collie is destined to make the team, some even going as far to project he'll be the second WR opposite Anquan Boldin. My first concern with that notion is that Collie, who's been particularly injury prone (not just concussions, but let's not forget about the ruptured patellar tendon, too), could stand to push a young, promising receiver off the squad.
Yes, some young players are eligible for the practice squad, but they have to clear waivers first. Teams are aware of the talent the 49ers have amassed, which was on full display the last two seasons as they conquered the NFC West on their way to the Super Bowl. You can bet anyone released by the team will be scooped-up rather quickly.
Let's say that your six active receivers entering Week 1 are: Boldin, Kyle Williams, Collie, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton, and Marlon Moore.
The first five seem like locks due to their skill, knowledge of the offense, and/or draft position ... or some combination of those things. Why did I put Moore on the list, then? You need to have at least one guy who plays special teams, more specifically, coverage units (i.e. making tackles).
At this point you're saying good-bye to Ricardo Lockette, Chad Hall, Kassim Osgood, Charly Martin, and others. No big deal, right? I mean, Lockette is intriguing. He might really become something with his speed and size, so that might be hard to let go of him, but if he hasn't stepped up enough to make the roster, well ...
Lockette could make the roster, but then you run into having nobody who plays coverage on special teams, assuming it's Moore you cut. If it's not Moore, you're cutting a pretty good young receiver, or one with experience (like Collie, who everyone is certain will make the team). So you pray he clears waivers and makes it to the PS (he does have eligibility because he's only spent two seasons on a PS and has no accrued seasons on an active roster).
So what if a guy like Chad Hall or Lockette has a monster preseason/camp? What if the coaching staff is put in a position where their best six guys don't include some of their young, relatively-early draft picks? They're not going to just cut these guys after a recent investment, so what's the answer?
It may end up being something creative that I was thinking about this morning: Injured Reserve.
No, this wouldn't give them access to a young player like, say, Quinton Patton, in 2013 ... but it would preserve a guy from being claimed by another team, allowing him to keep learning the system and be ready to take a spot on next year's squad.
I'm starting to think Patton would be the perfect candidate for this type of solution, should the 49ers find themselves in a spot where they think they need to get creative. Patton is already slowed by the finger injury, so he hasn't been able to showcase himself in full, yet. He's a hard worker who might need some time to get polished, and if the team has five or six other guys they really like, it could be a way to keep him around on the shelf this year.
It particularly makes sense when you start to think about a guy like Collie, who if he can stay healthy initially, has the talent to be a contributor in the offense...but how long will he stay healthy down the line? Would you really want to cut a guy in place of Collie only to have him get hurt and now you lost that promising young player to the Seahawks...
And what about when Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham come back? The WR spot will be especially crowded at that point, yet there might have been someone take a major step forward, and now you don't want to lose that guy.
The point is that teams can take any injury, severe or not, and decide to use IR as a way to retain that player without counting him against the 53-man roster. We saw it happen with Will Tukuafu a few years back and then again with Parys Haralson last year. Even Jim Harbaugh seemed to intimate that Haralson might have been a little too hastily put on IR for what didn't turn out to be a major injury, so it's happened before.
It's really the only way I can think of where the team get's to keep guys who actually have a chance of playing into the future and aren't just rentals. Even Boldin, while very talented, is only on a one-year deal and is well into his 30s. You don't want to empty the cupboard now only to have nothing in 2014.
Like the title says, it may be time to get creative.