49ers' backup receivers battle for roles

49ers' backup receivers battle for roles
August 20, 2014, 2:00 pm
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Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington are competing to be the 49ers' third receiver. (USATSI)

Programming note: At 4:00 this afternoon watch the debut of 49ers Preview Show on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.

SANTA CLARA -- There’s little doubt where Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin rank among the 49ers’ wide receivers.

“I’m pretty sure everybody already knows the bulk of it will be with Crab and Boldin, so we’re just fitting in right after that,” 49ers wide receiver Stevie Johnson said on Wednesday.

The 49ers rarely used three-wide receiver formations when the team was not on third down or in two-minute mode the past three seasons. But the 49ers have more flexibility this season with a stronger group of receivers.

“That remains to be seen,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “It’s week to week. It’s all about how does that match up against a particular team. We play quite a bit of empty. We probably use more tight formations than some people, and we haven’t lived in three wide receiver sets like some have.”

Johnson is coming off three 1,000-yard seasons in the past four years with the Buffalo Bills. Veteran Brandon Lloyd has impressed the 49ers’ coaching staff as he attempts to make a return to the NFL this season after a one-year hiatus. Young players Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington have also shown some promise.

The competition remains fierce for receiver roles behind the established starters.

[REWIND: Previewing the wide receivers]

“Whenever you get your opportunity, let’s make it work,” Johnson said. “That’s what we’re all thinking. We have a lot of great players, a lot of good players that can make plays. Everybody can’t be on the field at once. So there are going to be times when you’re called upon and hopefully you show up.”

Johnson appears to be the front-runner to get on the field when the 49ers go with three-receiver sets. Roman said Johnson brings a lot to the table, and the coaching staff has a good feel for his skillset. But Roman declined to commit to a Crabtree-Boldin-Johnson combination.

“We’ll have some flexibility there,” Roman said.

The 49ers do not figure to employ many four-receiver sets because tight end Vernon Davis is a dangerous weapon and the 49ers often keep running back Frank Gore on the field for pass protection. So there might not be a whole lot of work for the team's No. 4 wide receiver.

With teams being allowed to suit up only 46 players for regular-season games, the fourth wide receiver often doubles as a special-teams standout. Lloyd might be the 49ers’ fourth-best option, but it remains to be seen whether he would make the cut on the active 46 because he does not play special teams.