49ers to activate Manningham; Crabtree ahead of schedule

Three and Out: Aldon activated; what's next?

49ers to activate Manningham; Crabtree ahead of schedule
November 2, 2013, 7:15 am
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Mario Manningham caught 14 passes for 171 yards in four games with Colin Kaepernick last year. (USATSI)

Now you're talking about a complete arsenal.
Greg Roman

The 49ers’ search for a second productive wide receiver should come to an end in the coming weeks.

Mario Manningham, a starter a year ago until his season-ending knee injury in late-December, will be activated to the 53-man roster before Tuesday, when his 21-day practice window closes. He could make his season debut against the Carolina Panthers.

The addition/return of Manningham is not the only change in store for the 49ers’ offense in the second half of the season. Michael Crabtree, the team’s clear-cut No. 1 receiver last season, is ahead of his rehabilitation schedule and on pace for a late-November or early-December return to action from Achilles surgery.

And, suddenly, the 49ers’ wide receiver situation does not look so grim. After all, the 49ers figure to finish the regular season and head into the playoffs with Anquan Boldin, Crabtree and Manningham as the top three wideouts.

"There are problems and there are good problems, and that's a good problem," offensive coordinator Greg Roman told 49ers.com. "With Mario and Michael coming back into the fold, you're talking about two excellent receivers that have done it on the big stage. To throw that into the mix with Anquan and what Anquan has brought to this team on so many levels, now you're talking about a complete arsenal.”

It also means that Kyle Williams and Jon Baldwin will be shoved down the depth chart. Marlon Moore, who opened the season as the No. 3 wide receiver, was waived this week in anticipation of Manningham's return. And rookie Quinton Patton, with his broken right foot, is a candidate to end up on injured reserve to create a roster spot for the influx of talent.

The 49ers' offense will evolve in the second half with these expected changes:

More balance: The 49ers hit their stride with a five-game win streak behind running back Frank Gore and a return to a stubborn and will-imposing power run game.

It’s what the 49ers do best, and do not expect that to change.

But the 49ers will have more options in the passing game to complement Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, who stepped up as the team’s top big-play threat. His 17.9-yard average per catch and seven touchdowns lead the team.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is at his best when using the threat of the run game to his advantage via play-action. Whenever he drops back to pass, he will have more options than just Davis and Boldin.

Manningham caught 14 passes for 171 yards in what amounted to four full games after Kaepernick took over as quarterback last season. In eight games this season, Williams, Baldwin, Moore, Patton and Kassim Osgood combined for just 16 receptions for 142 yards.

More LaMichael: Coach Jim Harbaugh, without being asked about the second-year running back, spoke this week about getting LaMichael James involved on offense and special teams.

The most logical possibility is to give him an opportunity to replace Williams on punt returns. Williams did not hurt the 49ers through seven games in the return game. With his league-leading 20 fair catches, at least he was sure-handed and reliable.

That all changed against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London, when Williams fumbled a kickoff, muffed a punt and looked discombobulated. It was the second-worst game of Williams' career. Williams' struggles have opened the door for James to be active on game days.

“Get LaMichael in the mix,” Harbaugh said. “I want to get that going. He’s just too good of a football player not to be playing.”

Finding a role for James on offense is a little more tricky. After all, the 49ers already have a very good No. 2 running back, Kendall Hunter, who averaged 4.9 yards a carry and scored three touchdowns in the first half of the season.