Anquan Boldin

49ers’ No. 3 receiver? Maybe it’s their No. 2 running back

Eric Branch brought up a good point. With Jerome Simpson suspended for the first six weeks of the season, who exactly is the 49ers’ No. 3 receiver?

Bruce Ellington has been dealing with leg injuries throughout the offseason and training camp after a rookie season with six receptions for 62 yards and two touchdowns. Quinton Patton was behind five receivers on the depth chart last season, including Ellington. Patton has six catches for 78 yards in his two-year career.

Beyond Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, the list of receivers other than the three mentioned in the previous two paragraphs consists of undrafted free agents.

  • Dres Anderson
  • Isaac Blakeney
  • DiAndre Campbell
  • Mario Hull
  • Chuck Jacobs
  • Nigel King
  • DeAndrew White

White — who played the role of “Not Amari Cooper” in Alabama  — has gotten the most attention thus far. He was also the only wide receiver other than Simpson or Boldin to catch a pass against the Texans in the first preseason game. White caught one pass for three yards. That doesn’t necessarily really mean anything, especially since the 49ers only completed 13 passes for 115 yards in that game.

Plus, nothing is holding back someone like Anderson (son of Flipper, who used to torch the 49ers back in the late-80s/early-90s) or Jacobs (who seems like he’s been on the team’s practice squad since the Singletary days) from stepping in and surprising everyone. That seems pretty unlikely, however. Wide receiver depth is a problem for the 49ers … again.

Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman caught plenty of flack for forcing the team into too many 4-WR sets in 2014, but this year’s team might have a hard problem even filling out that particular formation. They appear ready to incorporate tight ends into their passing attack far more than last season, and maybe Vernon Davis or Derek Carrier can get some of the targets that would normally go to a No. 3 wide receiver in today’s pass-happy NFL. But who else might get those targets?

And that brings us to “Key 49er No. 8” in our 10-part series:

8. Reggie Bush

Did you know Reggie Bush has 8,954 yards from scrimmage? That’s more than Larry Csonka, Terrell Davis, Paul Warfield and Hugh McElhenny. Granted, it’s a different era and Bush didn’t tear his knee up like Davis, but his career has been a little more impressive than most would think.

Still, when the 49ers signed him, it seemed weird. They had just let a running back go in Frank Gore who was over 30 years old. Bush was cheaper, sure, but his game is predicated on speed and he had just muddled through a down season in Detroit. It’s easy to see what Trent Baalke is thinking with Bush — 2013 was a career year (1,512 yards from scrimmage), and he still found a way to catch 40 balls in 2014.

Everyone figured Baalke couldn’t go through ANOTHER draft without taking an impact wide receiver early, but he did. He took injured DeAndre Smelter as the team’s “redshirt” receiver in the fourth round, then signed several undrafted free agents. While Boldin will always be Colin Kaepernick’s favorite receiver as long as he’s on the team, and Smith is the designated deep ball guy, it seems like the 49ers are all about short throws to tight ends and running backs in 2015. That’s where Bush comes in.

He’s averaged over 50 receptions per season, and the 49ers better hope he gets to that mark this year. It’ll be interesting to see how often the 49ers split him out wide, since he might fit in well in 3-wide packages with Boldin (the intermediate possession guy) and Smith (the top-lifter). He may be asked to carry the ball quite a bit if Carlos Hyde doesn’t last all 16 games, too. By the way, has anyone heard from Kendall Hunter lately?

The 49ers know exactly how important Bush is to their chances, as they’ve been careful with him throughout camp and didn’t play him in Houston. After passing the dreaded (for running backs) age of 30 and coming off a season hampered by ankle injuries, can Bush regain the form that made him Detroit’s yardage leader — 20 ahead of Calvin Johnson — in 2013? The 49ers had better get that turf at Levi’s free of divots and make it a fast track, because Bush could either (a) be one of the 49ers’ top offensive weapons, and Kaepernick’s second or third option on several passing plays, or (b) another reminder that the careers of players who depend on speed and quickness can end in the blink of an eye.

***

More keys to the 2015 season (10-part series)

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