NFL Nation: Mario Manningham

A 7-9 season and a turbulent offseason has left the New York Giants' roster littered with question marks heading into 2014. There are so many positions -- receiver, offensive line, running back, tight end, defensive line, linebacker -- where they hope they've found answers but can't be sure. A lot is riding on the ability of Tom Coughlin and his coaching staff to bring it all together, and for help with that they will lean on the few positions at which they're sure they are set -- and the few players who remain roster rocks.

Victor Cruz appears to be such a player.

[+] EnlargeVictor Cruz
Al Bello/Getty ImagesVictor Cruz continued his quest for self-improvement, even after signing a big contract.
After signing his big contract extension last summer, Cruz showed up at training camp and told his coaches he wanted to work to improve his blocking. Yes, that's a wide receiver, in the wake of signing his big contract, deciding he wants to work on blocking because he knows he's got to get better at it to help the team and make himself a more complete player. At a time in his career when a lot of players might have started coasting, Cruz decided to work even harder at one of the toughest parts of his job.

"He's that way," Giants receivers coach Sean Ryan said last week. "For the kind of quick ascent he's had, none of that has ever gone to his head or to his work ethic. He's the same guy he was the day he walked in here in terms of working hard and being down to earth and wanting to be a complete football player. You've got to respect that."

Cruz did improve as a downfield blocker last year, in the estimation of the coaching staff. Like the rest of the offense, he endured a tough season from a production standpoint, catching only four touchdown passes and none after September. But toward the end of the season, he spoke with pride about the improvements he'd made in his game, and his coaches are eager to see him continue to work at it.

"With those guys and the blocking, it's about want-to," Ryan said. "They've got to want to do it. They've got to want to get in there and dig out safeties. And there's a lot of technique to it, too, just coming down and beating men to a spot versus just running out to where they are now. It's not blocking them where they are; it's blocking them where they're going to be. And I think he took a real interest in doing that and being good at it and making himself a complete player, and we're going to pick up on it and continue to improve on it with him and with everybody. You've got to block to play receiver in the NFL. You have to do it."

The return of Mario Manningham to the Giants brings someone who obviously knows all about that. Rueben Randle has the size to do it effectively if he'll commit to it as Cruz did. Rookie Odell Beckham Jr.? Too soon to know what his commitment will be to that nitty-gritty aspect of his position. But having Cruz around as an example can only help. He stands as an example of someone who's continued to work to get better even after brilliant early-career success.

"He's got that same skill set," Ryan said of Cruz now compared with early in his career. "He's an explosive player. His change of direction is excellent. I think he's gotten rid of, in my opinion, some concentration drops he had early in his career. I don't see as many of those. And from a leadership standpoint, he's really stepped to the forefront in terms of being vocal and being a leader on and off the field in that position."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- It is extremely important to the New York Giants and their new offense that 32-year-old veteran right guard Chris Snee return from his various surgeries and remain fully healthy this season. To that end, the Giants held Snee out of team drills during Tuesday's minicamp practice and could hold him out all week to protect his surgically repaired elbow.

Snee was out on the field for the entirety of the morning practice Tuesday, but he worked on the side with team trainers, just running. He said his surgically repaired hips are feeling great, but that the team is just being cautious with the elbow as planned all along.

Snee
"You saw what the [San Antonio] Spurs did, right? Rested some older guys? We're following that blueprint," Snee joked after practice. "Everything's been good so far. But at this point in my career, if they say, 'Take a breather,' I'm going to take a breather."

Snee said the elbow surgery he had after the season was more involved and required more rehab than he initially thought it would, and that's why he and the team put in a plan to back him off of some spring practices. He believes he'll be 100 percent ready when training camp begins next month, and he said his hips feel fine. He lost 35 pounds last season to help his lower body recover from its latest surgery, dropping down to 275 pounds. He says he's now back up to 300 and planning to gain 10 more by training camp to return to his playing weight.

"The plan with him is to see if we can get the elbow right so that he feels comfortable and confident," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "We won't be in a rush in that regard. He's played enough that we can get him healthy and get him right back to where he was. We know what we have there."

What they don't know about Snee is what they have in terms of his ability to hold up for an entire season. That, it seems, will remain a question until he actually does it.

Some other notes from the first day of minicamp:

Also working on the side were left tackle Will Beatty (leg) and wide receiver Mario Manningham (knee), who are hoping to return in time for the July 22 start of training camp. Middle linebacker Jon Beason, who broke his foot in OTA practices last week, attended meetings with the team in the morning but was not on the field. The Giants said his foot will be immobilized for the next six weeks, after which he'll begin his rehab.

First-round wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. did some individual drills but was still out of team drills due to a hamstring injury. "He was able to go. Whether he could hit that top speed was another question. Why take a chance on it right now?" Coughlin said. "I’d like to have him practicing. That’s how you learn – you practice. He’s done all of the studying, he’s good in the classroom, but he’s got to get out here."

Running back David Wilson was out there, running around and catching passes. Wilson remains hopeful that he can be cleared for contact drills by the time training camp starts next month.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Offensive lineman John Jerry, who was implicated in the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal last season and signed with the New York Giants this offseason to provide insurance at guard, recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and will miss OTAs and minicamp. Giants coach Tom Coughlin revealed this information following the Giants' practice Thursday.

It doesn't sound as though the injury should keep Jerry out of training camp, which starts in mid-July. But all of the Giants' offensive players are learning a new system under new coordinator Ben McAdoo, and the lack of practice time could hurt Jerry's ability to pick up what he needs to pick up.

There also remains a possibility that Jerry could face a league-imposed suspension for part of the 2014 season as a result of his involvement in the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin bullying fiasco, though the Giants do not seem to believe he will. They signed him in case veteran offensive lineman Chris Snee couldn't make it back from his second hip surgery and because they felt they needed more experience in the backup offensive line positions than they had last year.

Some other news and observations from Thursday's OTA workout:
  • Snee was out there practicing in full at right guard with the first-team offensive line. He said a few weeks ago that he feels great and hasn't been limited in any way.
  • Left tackle Will Beatty, who broke his leg in Week 17 of the 2013 season, and wide receiver Mario Manningham, who's had all kinds of knee problems, were working off to the side during practice. Coughlin said they were both on track to be ready by fall, which I took to mean training camp but I guess could technically mean the regular season. Charles Brown took Beatty's place at left tackle with the first-team line Thursday. J.D. Walton worked as the first-team center, with Geoff Schwartz at left guard and Justin Pugh at right tackle.
  • A variety of backup wide receivers got first-team reps with Manningham out and first-round pick Odell Beckham Jr. missing the day to attend the NFLPA Rookie Premiere event. Fourth-round pick Andre Williams also attended that event and was therefore absent Thursday.
  • Safeties Will Hill and Stevie Brown both practiced in full, Brown with the first-team defense and Hill with the second. Brown is recovering from ACL surgery that cost him the entire 2013 season, while Hill is appealing what would be his third drug suspension in as many years. Coughlin said that waiting for a resolution on Hill's status is difficult and would continue to be, but that the team has no idea when they can expect one.
  • Running back David Wilson was held out of any drills that may have resulted in contact, as he has yet to be cleared for contact following last season's neck surgery. Wilson said his next doctor's appointment is Wednesday. He says he feels no pain (and never did) and hopes to be cleared soon to practice with his team.
  • Oh, and quarterback Eli Manning, seven weeks removed from ankle surgery, practiced in full for the second day in a row.
After the New York Giants took LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. with the No. 12 pick in the draft Thursday night, I wrote this about the risks inherent in falling in love with a player and trusting your own evaluations. This was a very specific, 500-word analysis about the Giants' methods, and it had nothing to do with the player himself or what the Giants liked about him.

But they obviously like him a great deal and for a number of reasons, many of which they went into Thursday night after making the pick.

"He's a dynamic receiver, dynamic punt returner and a dynamic kickoff returner," GM Jerry Reese said. "You're getting a guy that can score touchdowns in three different ways for you. There's no way we would pass him up."

Three different ways is a pretty cool concept, especially if you're picking someone to replace Hakeem Nicks, who scored touchdowns in no different ways in 2013. The Giants clearly fell in love with Beckham's ability as a player who can help them score points. Picking him sends a clear message that they're more concerned with exciting playmakers than with rebuilding the foundation of their crumbled offensive line. Not the way I'd have gone, as you know, but they believe this guy will be enough of a difference-maker to justify the decision.

"We're talking about the quarterback needing help, and this guy is a weapon," Reese said. "We need a weapon on the outside. Victor [Cruz] is more of an inside receiver. Victor can't play on the outside. We have Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan and we got Mario Manningham back, so we're trying to get the quarterback some weapons. You need weapons in this league. We think this guy is a weapon."

Everything you hear about Beckham as a player backs up the evaluation. High-end speed, showcased at the highest level of college football in the SEC. Can take the top off a defense, force safeties to play deep, open things up underneath for Cruz and others. Reese described Beckham as "almost pro-ready," which indicates they expect a contribution at some point during his rookie season. And coach Tom Coughlin pointed out that Beckham's learning curve may not be that significant, given that the veterans, too, are learning a new offense this offseason under new coordinator Ben McAdoo.

"I think a young man of Odell's skill and his level of intelligence will pick this up relatively quickly," Coughlin said.

And good for the Giants if he does. They also raved about his abilities in the return game, which struck me as kind of odd after they spent free-agent money on return men Quintin Demps and Trindon Holliday. But when asked about potential redundancies there, Reese bristled a bit.

"It doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter," Reese said. "The more return guys you have in the building, the better. We haven't had any in the building in some time. So the more the merrier. We have some options there, and whoever wins the job, it's fine with me. Holliday is a fast guy. This guy is a fast guy. Speed kills."

The Giants really do get the benefit of the doubt a lot, though given Reese's draft track record I continue to fail to see why. When the Dallas Cowboys or the Oakland Raiders ignore long-range offensive line needs in favor of fun, speedy skill position players, they get ripped for it. Yet that's exactly what the Giants did Thursday and people seem OK with it. Yes, there are some offensive line options still available Friday night, but there are wide receiver options still available, too, so that argument doesn't really mitigate anything.

The Giants like a lot of things about Beckham, and he's put a lot on film for them and everyone else to like. If he's the player they imagine he'll be, then they'll be happy with the pick. The inherent flaw in the draft is that everyone imagines these best-case scenarios and they don't all come true. In the case of the Giants and Beckham, the excitement of what's imaginable carried the day.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There's no getting around the fact that the New York Giants haven't drafted well in the middle and late rounds for the last half-decade or so. General manager Jerry Reese isn't hiding from it either. At his annual pre-draft news conference Thursday, Reese trotted out an old line about how "nobody's batting 1.000," but he also didn't defend the indefensible.

"We sure want to do better than we've done in the last few drafts with the middle and late-round picks," Reese said.

Of the 26 players the Giants drafted in the second round or later from 2008-11, only five are on their current roster. One of those five, Mario Manningham, spent the last two years with the 49ers and only re-signed this offseason. Of the five, the only projected starters are left tackle Will Beatty and linebacker Jacquian Williams, and neither of their spots is exactly rock-solid at this point.

All but one of the seven players the Giants took in the 2012 draft are still on the team, but the only ones who could be starters this year are second-round wide receiver Rueben Randle and maybe, if he develops and they don't upgrade, fourth-round tight end Adrien Robinson. Again, no sure things there. Last year's second-rounder and third-rounder, Johnathan Hankins and Damontre Moore, could be starters but are also question marks. The point remains that the Giants' inability to find and/or develop mid-round talent is the main reason their roster hollowed out to such an extent that they had to sign more free agents this offseason than any other team in the NFL.

"There are different reasons why guys don't make it," Reese said. "Sometimes you just miss on guys, and we've done that. Sometimes there have been injuries why guys didn't pan out, and some of the guys have panned out. It's personnel, and nobody's batting 1.000 in personnel."

Given the importance Giants ownership places on stability in leadership positions, and the relative lack of turnover in the Giants' GM office over the past several decades, I am not of the opinion that Reese is on the "hot seat." I think he's going to be the Giants' GM for a long time to come, regardless of the results of this draft or any other.

For that reason, Reese is invested in the need to do better than he's done in recent years. He's a proud guy and doesn't give away too much in these settings, but he can't hide from the past draft misses. And it's clear that while he doesn't intend to do that, it does weigh on him. Reese is an old scout who believes in his scouts and want to see better results. So for that reason, I think he's feeling the pressure to have a better draft this year. The Giants don't want to keep finding themselves in the position of having to sign 16 outside free agents every spring. They need to build and maintain a deep roster, and those middle rounds of the draft are the place to do that.
The New York Giants hold the No. 12 pick in the 2014 NFL draft following their 7-9 season. The Giants have been the NFL's most active team so far in free agency, signing a total of 13 free agents, including 13 from outside their own organization. They have filled a lot of holes, but that doesn't mean they are without needs both immediate and long-term.

Mel Kiper's fourth 2014 NFL mock draft is out today. If you're an Insider, you have access to the three-round mock and will see that his first-round pick for the Giants fills a glaring present-day hole with a pick that could bring long-term benefits as well.

Look there's nothing wrong with the New York Giants meeting with wide receiver Mario Manningham on Monday. He's a former Giant, a Super Bowl champion who'll be 28 when the season starts, a guy Eli Manning knows well and ... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz ...

Sorry. I just fell asleep trying to write up yet another mediocre free-agent move by the Giants. My bad. I'll try and stay awake a little longer and make my way through a quickie analysis that I hope will explain the way I feel about the way the past six days have gone.

There's nothing wrong with Manningham, or with taking a look at him and his wrecked knee. Even if this is nothing more than a favor to an old friend looking for work, it's fine. The Giants need depth at wide receiver, and they just got through a season with Louis Murphy on the roster and active every week. Manningham, if he's healthy, surely would offer more than Murphy did.

[+] EnlargeMario Manningham
Al Bello/Getty ImagesMario Manningham made one of the most iconic catches in Giants' history, but his possible return to the team is nothing to get excited about.
My point is this: The Giants entered this offseason so supremely messed up and lacking at so many spots that this is almost what they had to do -- find average or below-average solutions with which to patch the many holes in their roster. Manningham wouldn't be an impact addition in any way. He's not better than Victor Cruz or Rueben Randle, and based on the way December went, he wouldn't necessarily deserve playing time over Jerrel Jernigan. He hasn't had a 60-catch season since 2010, and he's never had more than 60 catches in a season. He's just a guy. He's a guy who made one of the most important and thrilling catches in franchise history, which is why Giants fans likely feel more excited about this news than they should, but he's really just a guy.

The Giants let Hakeem Nicks, a 26-year-old Super Bowl champion, walk out the door without making an offer. They let 25-year-old Super Bowl champion Linval Joseph walk because they didn't want to spend on him. Each of those players is better than anyone the Giants could possibly get to replace him at this point, and therein lies the problem. Rather than actually upgrade the Giants at wide receiver on the front end of the roster, signing Manningham would simply fill in behind what they already have, pushing Randle and Jernigan into larger roles whether they're ready for them or not. The Giants were terrible in 2013, but it's hard to believe they would have been much better if only the backups had been getting more playing time.

The Giants have made some decent moves this offseason. Guard Geoff Schwartz was a fine and essential pickup. But they're taking chances elsewhere, bringing in guys like Rashad Jennings at running back and J.D. Walton at center with no proof that either guy can handle a starter's role. They're still thin on both lines, average at wide receiver after Cruz and have absolutely nothing at tight end. Right now, Trumaine McBride remains one of their starting cornerbacks.

Again, not all of this is their fault. They entered the week with lots of cap room, but they had so many doggone needs that the cap room vanished rather quickly even though they weren't really overspending. This is the reality of where the Giants are right now -- rebuilding their roster at nearly every position. The good news is that quarterback isn't one of the positions of need, and that there are still a number of free agents out there and the draft still to come in May. The bad news is that one offseason doesn't look as though it's going to be enough to rebuild the offense around Manning, and that this could be the beginning of a longer and slower process than many fans realized.

So if they want to sign Manningham, there's nothing wrong with that. But there's nothing about it that should get you excited about their chances this year, either. And to this point, I think that's a fair assessment of their offseason as a whole.

Early 49ers free-agent primer

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Let's take an early offseason look at the San Francisco's 49ers' pending unrestricted free agents:
    Boldin
  • WR Anquan Boldin: He is vital. He is 33, so he may not get much interest. The 49ers might be his best fit.

    Percentage of return: 75
  • CB Tarell Brown: The cornerback market was started last year and many starting-quality cornerbacks had to settle for less than they probably wanted. If that happens again, it could lead Brown back to the 49ers.

    Percentage of return: 55
  • K Phil Dawson: The 49ers love Dawson and he loves them. There is no reason for him not to return.

    Percentage of return: 90
  • RB Anthony Dixon: Dixon is versatile and he fills a lot of roles. But that could make him attractive to other teams.

    Percentage of return: 30
  • OL Jonathan Goodwin: He is 35. He is thinking about retirement, but he would also be willing to return if the 49ers wanted him back for another year or so.

    Percentage of return: 45
  • WR Mario Manningham: The oft-injured receiver is likely not be on the 49ers' radar.

    Percentage of return: 5
  • QB Colt McCoy: The 49ers will likely look for an upgrade but could always circle back to McCoy.

    Percentage of return: 25
  • WR Kassim Osgood: A special teams star. I'm sure the 49ers would like him back.

    Percentage of return: 60
  • Whitner
  • S Donte Whitner: This is a tough one. The 49ers need him, but if he gets pricey it may be difficult for them to keep him.

    Percentage of return: 60
  • CB Eric Wright: The 49ers had high hopes for Wright, but the team didn't seem to trust him. He finished the season on the inactive list.

    Percentage of return: 10

No surprises on 49ers' inactive list

December, 29, 2013
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There isn’t much intrigue on the San Francisco 49ers’ list of inactives Sunday at Arizona.

And that’s a good thing for the team. This team is very healthy. All six of the team’s inactive players are young, depth players. The 49ers have only 52 players on the roster after putting receiver Mario Manningham on the injured reserve Friday. The 49ers are expected to fill the roster in the next couple of days.

Here are Sunday’s inactive players: tight end Derek Carrier, linebacker Nick Moody, guard Ryan Seymour, defensive tackle Quinton Dial, guard Joe Looney and receiver Jon Baldwin.

Manningham's health questions linger

December, 26, 2013
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It appears Mario Manningham could miss his second straight game Sunday at Arizona.

Manningham
Manningham did not practice Thursday because of a lingering knee issue. He didn't play Monday. Rookie Quinton Patton, who was out since Week 4 when he broke his foot, took Manningham's place.

That could be the case Sunday at Arizona. Manningham was on the field during warm-ups but went to work with a trainer when practice began. He came back at the midway point after being out since last December with a knee issue.

“He's just working through something and just felt it was best to help tend to it that way,” San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Thursday when asked about Manningham not playing Monday.

Manningham, a free agent at the end of the season, has done very little in the four games Michael Crabtree has been back. So, if his injury lingers it may behoove the 49ers to continue to look at a youngster like Patton since he is guaranteed to be with the team next year.

49ers' Mike Iupati returns

December, 23, 2013
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Iupati is back.

Iupati
The San Francisco 49ers' standout left guard is active and is set to start Monday night against Atlanta. Iupati has missed the past four games with a sprained knee. Adam Snyder has taken his place.

However, backup receiver Mario Manningham is inactive. He has played the past six games after being out since last December with a knee injury. He missed two days of practice last week with a knee issue and because of an illness. Manningham's play has dwindled in the past three games with star receiver Michael Crabtree back.

Rookie Quinton Patton will get an opportunity. He has played since he broke his foot in Week 4.

Another interesting note about tonight's 46-man roster is tight end Derek Carrier is inactive for first time in a month. Newly signed backup fullback Will Tukuafu is active. He is 293 pounds. He could be a short-yardage factor.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Vic Fangio and Greg Roman have to do the halftime race just one more time.

No, the 49ers coordinators will not miss it.

One of the many quirks of Candlestick Park -- which hosts its final game Monday night when the 49ers play Atlanta -- is that the location of the coaches' box requires a long journey to the locker room at halftime and after games. Coaches from both the 49ers and the visiting team have to take a crowded, small elevator, then navigate through the stands -- yes, the stands -- to get on the field. Then, they have to go through the San Francisco Giants' old dugout and race to the locker room.

What does offensive coordinator Roman think about every time he has to do the halftime song-and-dance?

"I've got to get more exercise in because I'm breathing really hard by the time I hit that elevator," Roman said. "We all are. We just look at each other when we hit the elevator and go, 'Man, we've got to get more exercise.' But, yeah it's interesting. It's definitely part of the lore of Candlestick Park."

But it doesn't leave much time for halftime adjustments. Fangio, the defensive coordinator, figures they are in the locker room for six or seven minutes. So, as for as halftime work goes, it is been better to be on the road than at Candlestick.

"You don't feel the stress," Fangio said. "You know you're going to get up and out, up and down at a normal stadium. Here you've always got to fight through the crowd, which can be a little bit chaotic at times. Just nobody's fault. There are just a lot of people going up and down those steps. And then you've always got the elevator there. You might have to wait for it. There's only one, where these new stadiums usually have a bank of three or four there. But, luckily in the last three years, we've been fairly successful at home and the fans have been cordial going up and down."

Still, it is a feature of Candlestick neither coach will miss.

In other 49ers' news:

All 53 players on the roster practiced Friday. Guard Mike Iupati remains limited and will likely be listed as questionable to play Monday night.

Roman said receiver Mario Manningham is improving every week. He's been active the past six weeks after being out with a knee injury he suffered in December. Manningham's playing time has dwindled since Michael Crabtree came back three games ago. But he may get a chance for some more playing time. The 49ers may do more three-receiver sets now that fullback Bruce Miller is out for the year.

Fangio said cornerback Tarell Brown played well on the left side in nickel situations last week. It was the first time he's played on that side in the past three years. He lost his starting job to Tramaine Brock when he suffered a rib injury last month.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Speaking about the San Francisco 49ers’ defense on Thursday, star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said the team is relatively healthy going down the stretch -- a big key to a run in the postseason.

"For the most part we're healthy, man, and I think that's the big thing," Bowman said. "My big thing now is that we're healthy at the end the month of December and we're able to play at 100 percent level and give it all that we have and not really have any excuses."

The team's 53-man roster is fairly healthy overall as evident by Thursday’s injury report as the 49ers have been practicing in earnest in preparation of Monday’s night’s home game against Atlanta.

The big question mark remains left guard Mike Iupati, who has missed the past four games with a knee sprain. He was limited for the fourth straight practice this week. The fact that Iupati is still limited could be concerning, but it might just be the team’s plan of bringing him back slowly.

Center Jonathan Goodwin (not injury related), receiver Mario Manningham (illness, knee), and defensive end Justin Smith (shoulder) did not practice. Barring setbacks or anything unforeseen, all three players should be on track to play Monday. Receiver Michael Crabtree had a hand injury Sunday at Tampa Bay, but he practiced fully Thursday.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It would be a bit of a stretch to say the personality of the San Francisco 49ers will be ruined by the loss of their fullback.

However, there is no discounting it; the loss of the versatile, valuable Bruce Miller will hurt the 49ers.

Miller
The team is expecting Miller will miss the rest of the season with a broken scapula. He suffered it in the fourth quarter of the win at Tampa Bay on Sunday. After the game, Miller said he didn't think it was serious. Monday told a different story.

“Very significant” 49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday of Miller's loss. “He does so many things in the protection and the run game. Receiving out of the backfield. He is a multi-talented, multi-use player. Special teams contributor on two, three phases, so it's a loss.”

The 49ers are one of the few teams to use a fullback in a major role. They are still mulling what to do. The top in-house options are backup running back Anthony Dixon. He is athletic, versatile and tough. He could be the first player the 49ers look at.

Another interesting possibility is reserve inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite. A special teams maven and a strong injury replacement for the great Patrick Willis earlier in the season, Wilhoite played some fullback in the training camp. He is more than willing to play offense while Miller is out.

Harbaugh said Monday the team was bringing in Owen Marecic for a look. He played for Harbaugh at Stanford and he spent a short time with the 49ers earlier this season. There were indications Monday evening that the 49ers weren't sure if Marecic was up to playing a huge role. So, replacing Miller is still a work in progress.

He played nearly 60 percent of the snaps. His presence will be missed.

“That is kind of a big under the radar loss,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “He is a bit of a fullback/tight end tweener to me, but a real hammer as a blocker. They really stress physicality and want to use a very wide variety of personnel groupings, which he was perfect for. I don't know what they plan to do as a backup plan, but lead blocking fullbacks generally are not hard to find, but few do as much as him.”

It would be overstating it a bit to say the loss of a fullback will devastate any NFL offense in today's game. But the 49ers liked what Miller brought, so it will be an adjustment.

The good thing is receiver Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are playing after being out with injuries. So, the 49ers will likely do more three-receiver sets. Expect to see a lot of double tight end sets as well.

There are plenty of things the 49ers can do to mask this loss, but the point is they were very comfortable with Miller being a big part of the offense. In the meantime, they will have to hope his replacement -- whether it is Dixon or Wilhoite or someone else -- can raise his game when he is on the field. Miller was an enthusiastic player who fit with this group. His energy will be missed as well.

The Miller loss also means the 49ers will go the entire season without having their top 11 offensive players on the field for a snap. The 49ers have adjusted along the way and now will have to do it again without their feisty backfield security blanket for the stretch run.
Colin KaepernickStephen Lam/Getty ImagesColin Kaepernick had one of his better games this season with a full complement of receivers.
SAN FRANCISCO -- What's wrong with Colin Kaepernick?

It has been a common theme this year in media and fan circles.

After seeing him with a full complement of offensive weapons Sunday for the first time this season, that line of questioning may dissipate.

Kaepernick looked calm, cool, confident and efficient in the San Francisco 49ers' 23-13 victory over St. Louis Rams on Sunday as San Francisco sent the rest of the NFC an early-December message: A healthy 49ers' offense is a dangerous offense.

It's no coincidence Kaepernick looked far from being a detriment Sunday. Star receiver Michael Crabtree made his 2013 season debut after being out with a torn Achilles he suffered in May. For the first time since the Super Bowl, Kaepernick had a full cache of weapons. It was also the first time the team's top three receivers -- Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin -- played together.

If this group (as well as fourth option Mario Manningham, who played little Sunday because the 49ers used a lot of double tight-end sets) can stay healthy, it will be extremely dangerous down the stretch for the 49ers, who are 8-4 and in control of the sixth and final NFC playoff seed heading into the final quarter of the season.

And it will probably make Kaepernick, in his first full season as the starting quarterback, look as good as he did during last year's Super Bowl run.

"Colin was dynamic," San Francisco offensive lineman Adam Snyder said after the game. "He's been good all year, but give him these weapons and he is going to get a lot done."

He did Sunday, going 19-of-28 for 275 yards. There's no doubt, Kaepernick is more comfortable with a full complement of receivers.

In Week 4 against St. Louis (playing without Crabtree and Manningham), Kaepernick went 8-of-15 for 96 yards against the Rams' standard four-man rush. According to ESPN Stats & Information, against the same pressure Sunday, Kaepernick was 15-of-20 for 233 yards and a touchdown pass.

When facing a non-blitzing situation during the first 11 games of the season, Kaepernick completed 57.9 percent of his passes, averaged 7.2 yards per attempt and threw six interceptions. Against a four-man rush Sunday, he completed 75 percent of his passes, averaged 11.7 yards per attempt and was not intercepted.

Kaepernick's success against the Rams' standard pass rush, considered one of the best in the league, will likely force opposing defensive coordinators to consider different approaches and perhaps decide to blitz more often. That could create more opportunities for this offense.

That's the beauty of Crabtree's return for Kaepernick and the 49ers' offense. He opens up schematic advantages and secondary reads for the 49ers that simply were not there earlier in the season and made Kaepernick's job more difficult.

With Crabtree back (he had two catches for 68 yards), the pressure instantly came off Boldin and Davis. Boldin had one of his best games with the 49ers, with nine catches for 98 yards, and he may be the key to this offense in the final weeks. He will no longer get the brunt of the defensive coverage, as he excels as a second or third option. He showed that Sunday.

"It's about time he gets double-teamed now," Boldin joked, speaking of Crabtree. "When you have a guy like that on the other side, it definitely relieves pressure off of you. It frees you up to just go out and play ball. It's good to have him back."

Last season, Crabtree was targeted on 34 percent of the 49ers' offensive plays. It was the second highest rate in the league. That opened up opportunities for Davis, a star in the final six games of last season. Those chances opened up Sunday as well. Davis had four catches for 82 yards and a touchdown.

Inside the 49ers' walls, the team has supported Kaepernick, feeling good about his play and his field maturation amidst the challenges. Now, after seeing Crabtree's impact on the offense and how he can help Kaepernick, there is serious excitement.

"We can only get better," San Francisco fullback Bruce Miller said. "Colin's been great all season and having all of the guys back are just going to make him better."

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