SANTA CLARA — As the 49ers kicked off their third training camp under coach Jim Harbaugh this week, a familiar question hovered over the team: do they have enough depth at wide receiver to bring home the franchise's sixth Super Bowl?
In March, the 49ers looked like they had solved their receiver issues, adding three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin to a corps that already featured Michael Crabtree, who emerged as a legitimate No. 1 threat in 2012. But with Crabtree sidelined until November at the earliest after tearing his Achilles in May, the question shifts to whether Boldin can fill the 25-year-old's shoes in his 11th pro season.
“He's got the license and the ability to do that,” Harbaugh said.
In the first 10 years of his career, Boldin produced numbers that stack up nicely against those of Jerry Rice, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. He compiled 600 career receptions faster than any receiver in NFL history (98 games) and he's also the quickest to 300, 400 and 500 catches.
But in recent years, his numbers have dropped off a bit. In his past three seasons playing with the Baltimore Ravens, Boldin, who turns 33 in October, averaged 62 catches for 882 yards per year, well below the 88 receptions and 1,150 yards he averaged in six full seasons with the Arizona Cardinals (his injury shortened 2004 campaign was not factored in).
But Harbaugh isn't concerned about Boldin's age.
“Everything we've seen has been A-plus,” he said. “What he's done in his career and then the time he's been with us has been outstanding.”
Age didn't stop Boldin from tearing up the gridiron during the Ravens' Super Bowl run as he led all receivers with 22 catches and 380 yards in the postseason. Boldin set a Ravens record for receiving yards in a playoff game with 145 in their AFC Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts, he caught two touchdown passes against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and he scorched the 49ers for 104 yards and score in the Super Bowl.
Boldin has never been the quickest receiver in the league. In fact, the Florida State product slid to the second round of the 2003 NFL Draft because he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.72 seconds at the combine. But he set a record by amassing 217 yards in his first NFL game and he continues to cause fits for opposing defenses with his strength and physicality.
“He's one of the guys that I looked to before he got here to try to mimic my game after,” receiver Kyle Williams said, adding: “He's very physical — the way he plays the game is very physical. He demands attention because of the way he plays.”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound receiver's style of play was on full display in the AFC Championship Game as he tore a jump ball away Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty and shook him off his back, crossing the goal line for his first touchdown.
The veteran receiver's work ethic should set a good example for a young receiving corps that features Williams, 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins and rookie Quinton Patton.
“I think I'll be able to learn a lot by just watching him and when he starts to talk, just listen to his knowledge of the game because it's second to none,” Williams. “I think we can all learn a lot by just being able to be around him.”
Boldin isn't a vocal leader, but Harbaugh said he admires how serious he is when it comes to football.
“He's not always the friendliest guy to sit down next to in a meeting or at lunch and have a conversation with — unless it's about football,” Harbaugh said. “He's just serious about it. It almost comes off as a little bit as — I don't want any distraction. I want to be focused on football. And, I think it's a good thing for all of us. I think it's a good thing for our younger players.”
So far, Boldin and quarterback Colin Kaepernick are clicking in practice. But only time will tell if they can develop the kind of chemistry he had with Crabtree last year. If they do, Boldin and the 49ers could return to the Super Bowl in February.