Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Along with the offensive line, the 49ers' wide receiver group as a whole has been arguably the most criticized unit on the team since the end of the Jim Harbaugh era. Now, with the sudden influx of talent on the offensive line, the wide receivers find themselves standing alone as the perceived weak link, and the group most likely to prevent a return to contention for the proud franchise.

Even the team's cornerbacks, who have found themselves under similar criticism since last season, have sparked optimistic thoughts based on the emergence of Jimmy Ward and promising young players like 4th-round draft pick Rashard Robinson.

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No player embodies the question marks surrounding this group of receivers more than fourth-year receiver Quinton Patton. Patton, after being drafted in the fourth round out of Louisiana Tech in 2013, famously hopped on an airplane on his own dime to get to work with the team as soon as possible before the team turned him around and explained that he couldn't report until the designated date. It is this same eager-to-please, always-in-a-hurry disposition that has led to some of his notable missteps on the field.

The perception of Patton seems to be split, but is rarely positive. A large contingent of people including fans and pundits seem to view Patton this way: at best, he's a role player not fit to start, at worst, he's a bust. Not many people seem to view him as a good, starting NFL wide receiver. So, suggesting that he may be the key to unlock the passing game, and the determining factor in whether or not the Niners' passing game is successful this year might seem like a gloomy outlook for a team trying to escape the NFC West cellar. Is it really though? Is it fair to write off Patton's prospects as NFL playmaker?

In 2013, Patton arrived on a team that was fresh off a run to the Super Bowl and had high expectations of returning. Anquan Boldin also joined the team that year via trade from the Baltimore Ravens. Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham were also ahead of Patton on the depth chart, so there were no expectations for him. He could sit back and learn from a solid group of veterans who'd had success at the highest level in the NFL.

However, Patton did have one defining moment in the final game of the season: a Week 17 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals. With the Cardinals surging and one game behind the 49ers in the standings, the winner would clinch a playoff spot at 12-4 and the loser would go home with an 11-5 record. Due to injuries, Patton was pressed into action. In overtime, with the score tied 20-20 and the ball on the Cardinals 49-yard line, Colin Kaepernick uncorked a pass up the right sideline to Patton, who had cornerback Antoine Cason draped all over him in tight coverage. Patton elevated over Cason and hauled in the 29-yard pass in spectacular fashion and put the 49ers safely in Phil Dawson's field goal range. His teammates mobbed him in celebration. Dawson came out on the very next play and kicked the game-winning field goal, sending the 49ers to the playoffs as the wildcard.

Not many people think about that play or that game, because everyone remembers how the season eventually ended with disappointment in the NFC Championship game, but for one brief moment, Quinton Patton was the hero.

Coming off that play in that game, it seemed Patton might be poised to emerge as a factor for the Niners in the 2014 season. Instead, the 49ers, determined to overtake the new Super Bowl champion Seahawks, went all in on veteran receivers. The team signed crafty receiver Stevie Johnson from the Buffalo Bills, and they also bought former 49ers draft pick Brandon Lloyd out of retirement. The team also drafted Bruce Ellington in the 4th round out of South Carolina, and suddenly there was another young receiver on the team with an entirely different skillset than Patton. Patton was buried on the bench. He only suited up for the 46-man roster on four occasions, and he was targeted a total of 8 times all season, catching 3 passes.

Unfortunately for Patton, one of the rare moments when he was on the field is the one most fans remember. In a Week 16 matchup with the San Diego Chargers, the 49ers were clinging to slim playoff hopes, although they were admittedly very slim. In overtime, the 49ers offense was on the move, and on 2nd and 5, from their own 35-yard line, they ran a reverse to Patton, who demonstrated good speed turning the corner and breaking into the clear, crossing the 50-yard line, before having the ball poked out of his arms. The Chargers recovered the fumble, quickly moved into field goal range, and ended the game, along with the long-shot playoff hopes of the 49ers.

In the 2015 season, the 49ers reunited free agent wide receiver Torrey Smith with his former teammate Anquan Boldin and once again, Patton was leapfrogged on the depth chart. Due to disarray in the coaching staff, significant player retirements, and several other problems, the season quickly devolved into a disaster of epic proportions. In the midst of that mayhem, Patton started four games and enjoyed, by far, his best season as a pro. He caught 30 passes for 394 yards: a 13.1 average. However, in a preseason game vs. the Dallas Cowboys, Patton continued his tradition of putting at least one football follies-worthy play on the reel. After catching a Blaine Gabbert pass on the Niners' 25-yard line, Patton tried to reverse field, and then ran backwards to outrun defenders, and then tried to run even further back, before being dropped for roughly a 13-yard loss. It was only the preseason, but still good enough to make him a punchline on national sports shows.

So, what do we make of Quinton Patton's career to this point? I would argue that we do not have a sufficient body of work to judge. When given a chance, he's shown that he is both quicker and faster than given credit for. Last year, he routinely ran away from defenders when he got into open space. He also is a capable route runner.

As far as the glaring mistakes that he's made, they seem to be the same kind each time: a player trying to do too much, rather than making the play that's in front of him. But if you were a NFL wide receiver and the ball was only thrown your way 13 times in your first two years in the league combined, is it fair to say that you might try to do too much when it finally comes your way? With the thought in your mind that you never know when you'll get another opportunity to touch the ball, is it a stretch to say that you might put too much pressure on yourself to make a play when you do get it?

Quinton Patton has been running with the first team offense for this entire offseason and preseason. With a new coaching staff in the fold, it's fair to assume that he impressed them to get into that position. Releasing veteran wide receiver Jerome Simpson, which the 49ers did last Saturday, drives that point home even further.

Torrey Smith is the top wide receiver for the 49ers. Everyone pretty much knows what to expect from him. Some may hope for a higher ceiling for Smith, but you know that his floor is only going to dip so low. He's a consistent, talented NFL wide receiver, and should resume putting up his usual numbers now that the 2015 debacle is in the rear-view mirror.

The other side is not so certain, and that side is where Patton resides. The 49ers signed wide receiver Jeremy Kerley to play in the slot. That means, there's no savior showing up all of a sudden to secure that position opposite Smith. Second-year receiver DeAndre Smelter has earned praise from the coaching staff and media, but not so much so that he'll be expected to step in and start. The unit also lost arguably its most explosive player, as Ellington has been placed on Injured Reserve for his hamstring injury.

The variable on this wide receiver unit is Patton, and there's really no two ways about it. If he demonstrates that he is a quality, starting NFL wide receiver, opposite Smith, with a combination of Kerley and 2nd year receiver DeAndrew White and in the slot, the unit might turn some heads and become a pleasant surprise. But if Patton falters, and lives down to the expectations many have for him, the unit will become extremely one-dimensional, and ineffective, with Torrey Smith seeing a lot of double coverage.

In that regard, Quinton Patton is suddenly very, very important.