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Michael Crabtree's injury could loom large in competitive NFC West

If Michael Crabtree undergoes season-ending surgery, his absence will leave a serious dent in the 49ers offense. If Michael Crabtree undergoes season-ending surgery, his absence will leave a serious dent in the 49ers offense. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Can the balance of power within an entire division change hands during May workouts? Possibly, at least in the case of the NFC West, depending on how the San Francisco 49ers respond to the torn Achilles reportedly suffered by WR Michael Crabtree.

There is not a lot to separate the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks on paper -- those teams will enter the season as favorites in their division and conference. But the 49ers are now facing the extended absence of their No. 1 receiver, a player who raised his game to another level once Colin Kaepernick took over as the team's quarterback.

Following three decent-but-unspectacular seasons, Crabtree became a borderline elite weapon for San Francisco down the stretch and into the playoffs last season. He had 20 catches for 285 yards and three touchdowns in the postseason alone. Crabtree also became Kaepernick's unquestioned favorite target, with Kaepernick targeting him 89 times during his 10 starts (seven regular season, three postseason), a number more than double any other 49ers' player.

Though the 49ers will cross their fingers hoping that Crabtree can return before the year's out, as Baltimore's Terrell Suggs did last year following a similar injury, the pressure at wide receiver now falls elsewhere.

Namely, on Anquan Boldin, A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton, probably in that order.

The 49ers traded for Boldin this offseason, with hopes that he could provide a complement to Crabtree in the passing game. Now, at least in the short-term, Boldin is the No. 1 option. That responsibility will mean more attention from defenses and tougher assignments, challenges that he'll have to prove capable of meeting at age 32.

Jenkins, meanwhile, will have to put far more on display in 2013 than he did in 2012, when the Illinois product could not even crack the lineup after being drafted No. 30 overall. The athletic receiver finished his rookie year without a single catch ... and now may find himself tasked with being San Francisco's No. 2 receiver.

Patton is the wild card here. Despite catching 104 passes for Louisiana Tech last season, Patton slipped all the way into Round 4 at this year's draft. The 49ers then grabbed him in what appeared to be a steal then and what looks like a bit of foresight now.

The 49ers made the move for Boldin in the first place, at least in part, because Mario Manningham blew out his knee (torn ACL and PCL) during Week 16 last year. He had just 42 receptions and one touchdown before that setback, but San Francisco certainly would have counted on him in a big way this season were it not for that injury.

It's with one unfortunate blow, then, that the 49ers -- a team that is well positioned for another Super Bowl run at pretty much every roster spot -- now find themselves scrambling a bit. There is young talent to be excited about in Jenkins and Patton, plus the steady presence of Boldin.

Still, Crabtree's loss is a drastic one for the 49ers, and it may give the rival Seahawks a leg up in the NFC West heading into 2013.
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