But 85 catches, 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns later, Boldin surpassed those expectations while keeping the receiving corps afloat during the prolonged absences of Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham. His play during the regular season earned him the Bill Walsh Award, voted on by coaches, tabbing him the team's most valuable player.
Then in the playoffs, Boldin went on to lead San Francisco with 16 receptions for 227 yards when it came 18 yards short of a return trip to the Super Bowl when it fell to Seattle 23-17 in the NFC Championship Game. The eye in the sky said he might have been open on the final offensive snap when Colin Kaepernick was intercepted by Malcolm Smith after the fade to Crabtree was batted in the air by Richard Sherman.
Boldin came to San Francisco with one year remaining on his contract and has reportedly been the team's top priority in the early stages of the offseason. He earned $6 million in 2013 and is likely looking for a multi-year deal worth more per season. Boldin had his most productive campaign since 2006 with the Arizona Cardinals when he notched 83 catches for 1,203 yards.
Re-signing Boldin will have a big impact not only on 2014's salary cap situation, but beyond. The 49ers are doing all they can to hoard cap space with Kaepernick, Crabtree, Aldon Smith, Mike Iupati and others due for free agency this time next season. With cap space rolling over to the next year, Boldin's cap figure will make it harder to bring back all those players given their current market value.
Without Boldin in 2014, the 49ers' offense could take a substantial hit. And with a thin free agent class at the position this offseason, Boldin would be difficult to replace.
In the 11 games with Crabtree sidelined while Boldin and Vernon Davis were virtually the only threats in the passing game, the offense averaged just 185 passing yards while Kaepernick managed a 86.6 passer rating. Once Crabtree returned to play opposite Boldin, those numbers elevated by 47 yards per game (232) while Kaepernick had a rating of 101.4. It's no coincidence the 49ers won their last five regular season games with their top receiving duo intact.
Bringing Boldin back might take some of the immediacy away from the need at the position in the draft. But it likely wouldn't prevent the 49ers from taking a wideout in the early rounds. After whiffing on A.J. Jenkins in 2012, Trent Baalke would likely go after a more finished product than that of Jenkins, who was known as a late bloomer dating back to his college days at Illinois. He took Quinton Patton in the fourth round last season, whose collegiate production was off the charts, netting 2,594 receiving yards in his two seasons at Louisiana Tech.
That's why taking a player with the physical gifts of Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jarvis Landry and others projected to go in the first round would appear to make sense on the surface. Giving that player time to learn behind Crabtree and Boldin would be beneficial. But there might not be many snaps available initially with the emergence of Patton, who is expected to be the team's No. 3 wideout next fall. The 49ers rarely run sets with more than two receivers on the field as it is. The fourth receiver on the roster would likely need to contribute on special teams as Kassim Osgood did in 2013.
But addressing receiving becomes a priority with the expected departure of Manningham and Jonathan Baldwin. Osgood is also an unrestricted free agent. The 49ers are slated to have at least 11 picks in this year's draft that starts May 8.
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