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Who is 49ers' third (or fourth?) receiver and how will the offense evolve?

Eric Edholm
Shutdown Corner

Saw a great statistic this morning from ESPN's Bill Williamson: The San Francisco 49ers' third-leading receiver the past three seasons have caught 25, 41 and 20 passes.

And those were by fullback Bruce Miller, tight end Vernon Davis and a receiver/kick returner (Kyle Williams) who is no longer in the NFL. 

For perspective, the Denver Broncos had five players with more than 60 receptions last season. The Atlanta Falcons had seven players in 2013 with more than Miller's 25 catches.

Naturally, a lot of that was by design — the 49ers ranked third in the NFL in rushing attempts and dead last in passes thrown — but it also was because of personnel. The team was badly shorthanded at wide receiver with Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham coming off major injuries and unavailable until later in the season, often using 1-WR formations with Anquan Boldin as the main (and only) threat. Davis also acted as a wide receiver essentially (no, this isn't a contract discussion) out of necessity.

So what happens this season?

The Niners have Boldin back. They have a self-proclaimed healthy Crabtree. They still have Davis, and he's eager to prove his financial worth. The team also traded for Stevie Johnson. That's four legit receivers, and we haven't even mentioned former 1,400-yard receiver Brandon Lloyd, former first-round reclamation project Jonathan Baldwin, former second-round tight end Vance McDonald or fourth-rounders Quinton Patton (2013) or Bruce Ellington (2014).

From paper thin to rather loaded, right?

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49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

This is still a running team, no question. Even with a beefed-up group of pass catchers and Colin Kaepernick signing a prove-it deal that he clearly is eager to back up, the 49ers will go to their bread and butter when it counts. That means heavy formations, multiple running backs and power football. Why would Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman get away from a thing that has made them unique and that so few teams — in this nickel-heavy, lighter-and-faster-is-better era — are geared to stop these days?

Still. You have to think that there will be an evolution in the passing game. Yes, Kaepernick must develop better pocket sense and prove he can go through his progressions and read defenses better, but there have to be more opportunities to do so with better personnel. Assuming the offensive line can pass block better — not a given, of course — this offense has a chance to go supersonic.

Roman hinted at it this offseason, saying the offense will have a new look to it. If the team can pick up the pace a bit (only the Dallas Cowboys ran fewer plays last season) and cut down on their three-and-out percentage (they ranked 27th in the NFL last season) with a more efficient passing game, we could be talking about one of the more complete units in the NFL.

Running an average of five more offensive plays per game would equate to 80 more total for the regular season and would place them in the middle of the NFL pack likely in that category. And if they could total about 200 offensive drives (they had 189 in 2013) and cut down their three-and-outs from 47 to about 40, this could become an offense that not only can score (25.4 ppg, 11th best in 2013) to one that can choke out opponents — even in the minefield that is the NFC West — on a regular basis.

Who will earn the playing time?

Consider: Boldin (831 plays), Frank Gore (761), Miller (534) and McDonald (494) might not be on the field as much as they were a year ago. Williams (328), Manningham (153) and Anthony Dixon (82) are gone. Davis' play-count status obviously hangs in the balance with the threat of a possible holdout, but we'll assume for now he reports, stays healthy and plays a similar snap count to his 834, and if it's fewer it won't be by a ton. (Davis played 942 snaps in 2012 and 1,023 in 2011.)

But Crabtree (324) certainly will get more snaps if he stays healthy. Johnson, who has caught a combined 207 passes the past three seasons, should earn some quality run. I believe Ellington — admittedly, a personal favorite during the 2014 NFL draft scouting process — will open some eyes and force his way onto the field eventually. Rookie running back Carlos Hyde figures to get on the field right away, despite a crowded backfield, although it will be fascinating to see how Gore, Hyde, Kendal Hunter and perhaps LaMichael James and Marcus Lattimore will work together.

More options, more talent. The 49ers' offense stands to be more diverse and dangerous this season.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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