INDIANAPOLIS – Even 49ers general manager Trent Baalke, who is loathe to give away anything in terms of team strategy, admits his team is in the market for a receiver or three.
“When you only have two under contract for next year, it’s an area you have to address,” Baalke said at the NFL scouting combine.
Those two would be Michael Crabtree, who caught 72 passes for 874 yards and showed some progress in 2011 after being the No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 draft, and Kyle Williams, known more for his two costly fumbles in the NFC Championship game than for his role as a complementary receiver.
Joe Hastings, a late-season promotion from the practice squad, is also on the roster.
The pending unrestricted free agency of Ted Ginn Jr. and Josh Morgan isn’t the issue as much as production, as the group was exposed as deficient on the grand stage of the NFC Championship game.
With Crabtree’s one catch for three yards in the 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants still in the minds of much of the fan base, the question is whether the 49ers will use their first-round pick (No. 30 overall) on a wide receiver or address it in free agency.
The 49ers haven’t exactly distinguished themselves in the past 26 drafts since Bill Walsh selected Jerry Rice out of Mississippi Valley State at No. 16 overall, and it’s not considered a banner year for the position.
Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, whose team picks before the 49ers at No. 29, is in the market for a wide receiver but said, “We’re at the outset of our evaluation process, but I don’t know how strong this class is.”
Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, the consensus No. 1 player at the position, might not last through five picks.
After Blackmon, the top prospects have question marks. Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd has had issues with alcohol, most recently an arrest last year on drunken-driving charges. Kendall Wright of Baylor lacks size at 5-10, 195 and did much of his work between the hash marks in Baylor’s spread offense with quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers and Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina aren’t likely to stretch the field, relying more on physicality. Jeffery, who played at more than 230 pounds, came to the combine at 216 hoping to add quickness.
Crabtree is only one of three wide receivers to be taken by the 49ers in the first round since Rice, the others being a bust in Rashaun Woods (No. 31 in 2004) and J.J. Stokes (No. 10 in 1995), who was respectable but never ascended to the level the 49ers hoped.
In those 26 drafts, San Francisco has selected only eight wide receivers within the first three rounds, with the only standouts being Terrell Owens (third round, 1996) and John Taylor (third round, 1986).
The Giants, meanwhile, won the Super Bowl with a first-round pick (Hakeem Nicks), a third-round pick (Mario Manningham) and an undrafted free agent (Victor Cruz) all producing at a high level. The trio caught 16 passes for 214 yards against the 49ers in the NFC championship game.
The free agent market at the position in 2012 could include some proven but ultimately expensive talent _ restricted free agent Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh and unrestricted free agents Marques Colston (New Orleans), Vincent Jackson (San Diego), DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia) and Stevie Johnson (Buffalo).
San Francisco is holding out hope that Crabtree can develop into the elite receiver his draft status suggests.
“We like the growth he had in a new system, we like the chemistry he and Alex seemed to develop over the course of the year,” Baalke said. “Whether he can define himself as a true No. 1 remains to be seen, but certainly we’re happy with the progress he made.”
Crabtree’s next step will be managing to stay healthy and actually playing in the preseason, as a neck injury derailed him in 2010 and foot surgery during last year’s lockout slowed his development in 2011. As a rookie, Crabtree didn’t sign a contract until October with the 49ers well into their season.
“You get better by practicing football, much like you don’t get to Carnegie Hall without a lot of practice,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s got an opportunity to have an offseason that he’s never had before, and not of his own doing.”