Coming into Monday's opening tilt vs. the Los Angeles Rams, the San Francisco 49ers came into the 2016 regular season confident that they had significantly upgraded their roster from the group that went 5-11 last year under Jim Tomsula.
One notable exception was the wide receiver position. The 49ers allowed Anquan Boldin, their leading receiver the previous three seasons, to walk away in free agency. Conventional wisdom suggests that a 35-year old wide receiver possession receiver might not be the ideal target to sign to a new contract under a new coach that emphasizes playing fast. The problem is that even at his advanced age, Boldin still caught 69 passes, and no replacement for that production appeared to be in sight, especially after promising Canadian Football League transplant Eric Rogers went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.
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It turns out that the replacement may have been on the team all along. With Quinton Patton penciled in for a starting position early in camp, it became clear that he had earned the confidence of the coaching staff. With a group of young receivers vying for that spot, Patton never relinquished it, and when the 49ers ran onto the field last night, Patton was an opening day starter for the first time in his career.
Patton's stat line alone is not eye-catching: 5 receptions for 60 yards. What should be encouraging for Niners' fans is the way Patton accumulated those stats. He displayed the promising speed that he has flashed in the past while pulling away from defenders on a nice catch and run up the sideline on a near touchdown. In previous seasons, it was unclear if he was only getting open because it may have been garbage time, or in meaningless games at the end of the season when teams are either out of contention or have playoff spots locked up.
He wiggled in and out of routes with quickness and precision. On one particular catch, seeing him lean with his head and upper body to the sideline on the left, before suddenly breaking back to the inside and creating separation, was reminiscent of what 49ers fans saw from Michael Crabtree for years.
Early in the preseason, Patton credited the mentorship of Crabtree and Boldin as significant factors in his development as a receiver. It's hard not to remember a young Crabtree early in his career giving credit to former NFL great Isaac Bruce for showing him how to use his head and upper body to disguise routes during his brief time with the Niners.
Overall, the 49ers aerial attack was anything but prolific yesterday. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert completed 22 of 35 passes for only 170 yards, and there were clearly a lot of opportunities left on the table. However, regarding the mild panic over whether or not there is actually a legitimate starting wide receiver on the team opposite Torrey Smith, Patton appeared to answer those question with a resounding "yes."