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When considering the potential production of the San Francisco 49ers' top two wide receivers in 2015, there are numerous factors to consider. For years, the team has tried to put together a receiver duo that would be threatening to opposing defenses — a big and strong possession receiver and a deep threat that could stretch the field. They tried to build that via the draft, but continuously failed miserably. It took a trade in 2013 and a free agent acquisition this year to finally put together a pair that could achieve that goal.
Acquired via a trade with the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, Anquan Boldin has been quarterback Colin Kaepernick's favorite target for the past two seasons. He is Mr. Reliable for the team's signal caller. In each of his two seasons with the 49ers, Boldin has surpassed 1,000 yards receiving.
Thanks to an offseason acquisition, Kaepernick now has two legitimate targets at his disposal and finally gets the legitimate deep threat that he has needed for years in Torrey Smith — another former Raven. When you simply look at the stats, Smith may not seem as productive at catching the ball as Boldin, but he stretches the field and that is something that opposing defenses have been unconcerned about for a while. Smith was one of the NFL's top deep threats while with the Ravens and that is unlikely to change with the 49ers.
Smith is a solid blocker and while he can run underneath routes and be effective at it, he did not do it often with the Ravens, which is fine because the 49ers have Boldin for that. Instead, Smith will be able to focus on what he does best, which is stretching the field with his vertical game. His speed makes him dangerous because he can take off after a catch and amass extra yards for the offense, which should keep opposing safeties preoccupied.
Boldin, having played with him in Baltimore and seeing value in a player of Smith's caliber, took an active role in recruiting him to the 49ers. "I told him what kind of organization it was," Boldin said, "a first-class organization, a place where they care about you, a place where you have an opportunity to win, all of that."
How valuable is Boldin to the 49ers? Over his past two seasons with the team, he has caught 64.4% of the passes thrown his way. On the other hand, Smith has caught less than 49.4% over the past two seasons with the Ravens. While Torrey Smith's numbers aren't as impressive in this area, what may impress you is that he has never averaged less than 15.7 yards per reception in a season and averaged 17.4 in both 2012 and 2013. Boldin has averaged over 14 yards per reception only three times during his entire 12 year NFL career. Despite Smith's 767 receiving yards last season for the Ravens, which is still more than Michael Crabtree's 698, he got into the end zone 11 times. That ranked him 7th in the league among receivers. He did all this while hampered by a knee injury.
Do you want to talk character and dedication? Torrey Smith has plenty of it. Smith, like Boldin for the 49ers, was nominated as his team's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award representative last season. He created the Tevin Jones Memorial Scholarships Fund in honor of his brother, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2012 — less than 24 hours before a matchup between the Ravens and New England Patriots. Smith ended up playing in that game. He finished with six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns in the Ravens' 31-30 victory over the Patriots.
He was also a favorite among the Baltimore media because of his professionalism.
Of course, a lot of the production for both receivers will depend on the 49ers' offensive line and running game. There has been a lot of offseason turmoil for the team from coaching changes and retirements to free agent losses. Along the offensive line, there was the free agent loss of guard Mike Iupati, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals, and the sudden retirement tackle Anthony Davis, a key component in the team's ability to run the ball. Their departures shifted personnel, creating some uncertainty along the offensive line.
The offensive line's ability to protect Kaepernick and buy him time to find new target Smith downfield will help his production. If they cannot, Boldin may see a surge in targets on shorter routes as Kaepernick tries to get the ball out of his hands early.
At running back, the 49ers are looking to replace the team's all-time rushing leader, Frank Gore. Carlos Hyde is the favorite to start and many are predicting a break-out season for the second-year player. A productive Hyde would certainly bode well for Boldin and Smith if they are able to take advantage of defenses that are preoccupied with a running threat.
Then there is Colin Kaepernick himself, who insists that the offseason changes to the team "are for the good."
"I feel very confident in our team," Kaepernick recently said while speaking at the annual Governor's Dinner in Nevada. "I feel people are writing us off, but for us, that's all right."
How often has Kaepernick targeted his receivers over the past couple of years? In 2013, 56.1% of his passes went to wide receivers. That number jumped to 71.3% in 2014. It was well over the league average of 60.3% for wide receivers, with only the Philadelphia Eagles targeting the position more often. These numbers bode well for Boldin and Smith's fantasy statistics.
Of course, a lot of that had to do with the drop in production at the tight end position — mainly Vernon Davis. In 2013, tight ends were targeted on 26.1% of Kaepernick's passes, with that number dropping to 15.38% in 2014. Even factoring in wide receiver Michael Crabtree missing 11 games in 2013 and then playing a full season the next year, that number is still significant. Davis saw two fewer targets per game last season when compared to the year before with his receptions dropping from 52 to 26 and his touchdowns from 13 to just two. He was targeted only 50 times last season, compared to 84 times in 2013. On those targets, his reception percentage dropped 10% from 2013 to 2014. A legitimate deep threat at wide receiver may help bring those numbers back up.
How do fans feel the 49ers receiving duo will perform in 2015? As usual, Boldin is being underrated in fantasy leagues. In 2014, his 136.6 points for the season ranked him 21st among wide receivers. The year before that, his 161 points ranked him 15th in the same category. Still, right now, there are an average of 43 other receivers being drafted ahead of him and NFL.com predicts that 46 receivers will finish ahead of him once the season is done.
On the other hand, Torrey Smith is being projected as the 20th best receiver available. In 2014, his 142.7 season points ranked him 19th among receivers, just two spots ahead of Boldin. The year before that, his 138.8 season points landed him at the 20th spot, five spots behind Boldin. So his current projection is right in line with past performances.
Boldin and Smith are once again on the same team and there is a limited number of balls to go around, but if they can be nearly as effective as they have been over the past two seasons, then the 49ers passing game could be very dangerous — assuming the offensive line and running game comes together.
Clearly, fantasy football fans are predicting that with the offseason turmoil that has impacted the 49ers, along with the addition of Smith to the receiver corps, Boldin's numbers might decline. Of course, this is the prediction year-after-year and Boldin always proves his critics wrong. It has been a long time since the 49ers have had this dangerous of a receiving threat. They even added running back Reggie Bush during the offseason, who is an additional receiving threat out of the backfield. It would be foolish to believe that the 49ers would be unable to take advantage of their new weapons this season.