SCENES FROM a seven-on-seven drill at the 49ers' Santa Clara, Calif., camp:
• Showing impressive burst, number 18 gets behind cornerback Carlos Rogers. Deep help is late to arrive as 18 snags a 40-yard TD. Who is that guy? Oh, yes, it's second-year man Ricardo Lockette, of Fort Valley State.
• On a 15-yard crossing route through traffic, number 19 climbs the ladder, snagging a high ball. Superb grab, 19. And you are? Oh, yes, Marlon Moore, a fourth-year player with 12 career catches, late of the Dolphins.
• A Colin Kaepernick fastball clangs off the hands of number 14 on a shallow crosser—which is unusual. Fourteen is Chad Hall, a 5' 8" slot guy out of Air Force who's been catching everything in sight.
More so than in summers past, spectators at Niners camp this year needed a roster, the better to puzzle out the names of the low-profile receivers Kaepernick was targeting. Gone from last season are Ted Ginn and Randy Moss, and languishing on the physically unable to perform list are Michael Crabtree (Achilles) and Mario Manningham (ACL). Crabtree, whose upgrade last season from good to white-hot coincided with Kaepernick's promotion to starter, is out until at least November; Manningham is out until at least mid-October.
Meanwhile, the 49ers have gone from having a Who's Who receiving corps to a unit better nicknamed Who's He? The NFC champs were looking a little thin at the position before a rash of minor training camp injuries (Kassim Osgood, Quinton Patton and Kyle Williams each missed practices) forced the team to sign a pair of street free agents, Lavelle Hawkins and Austin Collie. It didn't bode well that both newcomers—Collie, the ex-Colt, in particular—immediately stood out.
While not in dire straits, San Francisco looks underwhelming at receiver, although there are certainly reasons for optimism:
• Running stride for stride with cornerback Marcus Cooper, number 81 is not open ... until, a half-second before the ball arrives, he plants and elevates, rotating his body to the left, spearing the pass at its highest point.
Number 81 is, of course, Anquan Boldin, the aging but effective ex-Raven for whom the Niners traded last March, five weeks after he had his way with their D-backs in Super Bowl XLVII. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman says the 49ers coveted the three-time Pro Bowler even before he roughed them up with 104 yards and a TD in the Superdome. "From the moment he stepped into the NFL, he's been a difference maker," says Roman. "He's tough, he's strong, and he plays with strong will. He makes catches that a lot of guys just don't make. He's hardworking, intelligent, competitive, has great attention to detail—all the things you look for."
What the Niners spent August looking for was a bookend for Boldin, whose acquisition appeared especially prescient after Crabtree went down at minicamp in May. They may have found one in Vernon Davis, the sculpted (6' 3", 250, and a reported 4% body fat) tight end whose role shrank after Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith last November, but who has officially replaced Crabtree as the QB's primary target. "He's a matchup nightmare," says Kaepernick. "You can do just about anything with him."
And so Roman has, rotating the veteran between end and wideout and the slot. It's not as if Davis lacks the speed to beat people deep: He's run the 40 in 4.38 seconds. In camp, number 85 repeatedly singed Niners safeties and mismatched linebackers for 40-plus-yard gains. "The same chemistry [Kaepernick] had with Crab, I see him developing it with Anquan, with Vernon," says Roman. "That's what camp is for."
Roman will need to do something creative to make up for Crabtree's loss. As he puts it, "We're going to have to make the soup without that ingredient." Surely he will opt for a larger measure of Williams, a versatile, quicksilver receiver who plays all three positions and who has shown above-average resilience. After committing a pair of ghastly turnovers in the 2011 NFC title game, he attacked the following season, eventually beating out Moss for the third receiver spot before tearing his ACL in November.
Roman seems less anxious about losing Crabtree than he is excited to see which low-profile Niner seizes the opportunity created by his absence. "Someone's going to step up," he says. "They always do." But who? That remains a mystery soup.
THE CASE FOR...
Free safety Eric Reid
He was an engaging, upbeat teammate, one of the most popular guys in the locker room, but the 49ers didn't make it a priority to re-sign FS Dashon Goldson this off-season. Though he was stout against the run and known for highlight-reel collisions with WRs, the Niners likely reasoned that he could be a liability in coverage. With each practice that went by during camp, the decision to let Goldson go—he's now in Tampa—looked better and better. That's because the player being groomed to replace him, the rookie Reid, is faster and has better range along with a higher upside. Four years ago, when coach Jim Harbaugh was still at Stanford and Reid was a high school star in Louisiana, the teen spurned interest from Harbaugh, choosing to stay home and play for LSU. "This time," says the coach, after the Niners traded up 13 spots to draft Reid No. 18 in April, "Eric had no choice." While Reid and Craig Dahl split time with the first-team defense in the preseason, the rookie clearly outshone his elder. At 21, he's still learning the D, and he may not start against Aaron Rodgers's Packers in Week 1, but there's little question who will be the 49ers' free safety by midseason, and for years to come.
SINCE YOU'VE BEEN GONE
NHAT V. MEYER/SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS/MCT/LANDOV
WR ANQUAN BOLDIN