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49ers in need of receivers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Keeping Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick reasonably happy could be the 49ers' theme this offseason.

Both are in line for contract extensions, forcing the 49ers to weigh their instant success against their staying power and the rising markets for both.

But Harbaugh and Kaepernick need more than money. They need help with a passing attack that ranked as the third-worst in the NFL last season. As the NFL Scouting Combine gets into full swing this weekend in Indianapolis, so begins general manager Trent Baalke's annual quest for receivers, and that raises a number of questions:

Will Anquan Boldin re-sign with the 49ers? (Probably). Will the 49ers give Michael Crabtree an extension before his hotly contested rookie contract expires in 2015? (Probably not yet). Will their arsenal of draft picks, 12 strong, produce a blockbuster trade that puts them in position to get Sammy Watkins, the top collegiate receiver? (Enticing but unlikely).

The passing game can't be ignored, a fact underscored by the disappointing end to the last two seasons: Kaepernick to Crabtree for no cigar.

Packing a more potent offensive punch is essential if the 49ers hope to keep up -- and now catch up -- to the Seattle Seahawks, their hated foe and now Super Bowl champions.

With free agency approaching (March 11), followed by the draft (May 8-10), the 49ers' top needs are wide receiver and, perhaps, cornerback. Other hot spots are safety, kicker, center, backup quarterback and the defensive line.

Safety Donte Whitner, kicker Phil Dawson, cornerback Tarell Brown, center Jonathan Goodwin and Boldin are the starters ticketed for free agency.

"I'm going to fight to keep our players and not let our players get taken away," Harbaugh said the day after the season-ending loss at Seattle.

Harbaugh's own situation -- he has two years remaining on a five-year, $25 million contract -- got more interesting Friday when it was reported that the 49ers had a deal in place that would have made Harbaugh the coach of the Cleveland Browns. According to ProFootballTalk.com, Harbaugh opted to veto the deal. The report was denied by 49ers owner Jed York, who tweeted: "Report isn't true."

As for Kaepernick, he is approaching the final year of a contract that will pay a base salary of $973,766. A sizable raise is forthcoming, but like the coach, the quarterback would be getting more if he'd won a Super Bowl rather than just coming close, twice.

For now, the most urgent talks center on Boldin, arguably the top priority of the team's 10 unrestricted free agents. Boldin, stolen from Baltimore for a sixth-round pick last offseason, was the 49ers' leading receiver in 2013 and was voted team MVP by the coaches. Both parties are interested in striking a deal, and it could happen before the team leaves Indianapolis next week.

"We're just getting into that," Baalke said Friday. "Like we've always maintained, our No. 1 objective in the offseason is to take care of our own guys."

Even if Boldin returns, he and Crabtree give the 49ers just two threats. No disrespect to Quinton Patton, who showed positive signs in an abbreviated, five-catch rookie season, but the drop-off from Boldin and Crabtree at this time is too great.

Figuring their money is more committed to in-house extensions -- that group also includes guard Mike Iupati, linebacker Aldon Smith, and fullback Bruce Miller -- Baalke won't have much to spend on free-agent receivers. Still there is a market: Golden Tate (Seahawks), Jacoby Jones (Ravens), Brandon LaFell (Panthers), Jeremy Maclin (Eagles), Andre Roberts (Cardinals), James Jones (Packers), Eric Decker (Broncos), Dexter McCluster (Chiefs) and Emmanuel Sanders (Steelers).

As for the draft, the 49ers' first pick is No. 30 overall, the spot at which they took A.J. Jenkins in 2012. They have never drafted a wide receiver higher than No. 10 overall, that being J.J. Stokes in 1995. Watkins, who finished his Clemson career with a 16-catch, 227-yard performance in the Orange Bowl, could be a top-five pick, according to several draft experts.

"I usually don't get too excited about wide receivers in the top 10, but this kid is different," NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said. "He's got an attitude like he wants to be the best player there is, and when you combine that with his physical ability, it's awesome."

If the 49ers stay put at No. 30, other top options at receiver include Jarvis Landry (LSU), Odell Beckham (LSU), Davante Adams (Fresno State), Paul Richardson (Colorado), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State) and Allen Robinson (Penn State).

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. projects six to nine wide receivers as first-round candidates. On-field testing begins Sunday for receivers, running backs and quarterbacks.

On the defensive side, Whitner's return will hinge on his affordability. The same likely is true of cornerback Carlos Rogers, whose scheduled salary of $6.25 million might be too high. Brown, the starting right cornerback much of the past three seasons, seems poised to hit the market along with fellow corners Eric Wright and Perrish Cox.

-- Baalke spoke Thursday with Aldon Smith and is encouraged by his offseason approach. "He's in Vail, having a good time away. We keep in contact regularly," Baalke said. "We've got a great support system. Aldon's done an outstanding job utilizing that support system and will continue do to that."

Smith missed five games last season while undergoing personal treatment after an alleged drunken-driving accident.

-- Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody are in line to fill in while linebacker NaVorro Bowman recovers from knee surgery. "We're going to take a hard look at that to see if we need to infuse a little bit more competition into that position," Baalke said. "The No. 1 thing regarding NaVorro is making sure he's 100 percent before we bring him back. . . . If that's midseason, middle-to-late part of the season, that's when it is."

(c)2014 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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