Injuries to Harvin, Crabtree may boost Rams in NFC West
This is hardly the way San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Seattle's Pete Carroll had dreamed of starting training camp -- each coach with his top wide receiver sidelined by injuries.
The 49ers placed Michael Crabtree on the physically unable to perform list Thursday while he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon injury suffered in May. Similarly, and surprisingly, the Seahawks gave Percy Harvin the PUP designation Thursday because of a hip injury, just four months after acquiring him in an offseason trade with Minnesota.
Harvin has a slight tear in his labrum, according to NFL.com. The Seahawks reportedly wanted him to try to practice with the injury, but Harvin apparently wants to seek a second opinion -- one that ultimately could lead him to opt for surgery.
Those two injuries could alter the balance of power in the NFC West, where the 49ers and Seahawks each won 11 games last season but now could be looking over their shoulders more attentively at St. Louis. Although the Rams went 7-8-1 in '12, that record included a 2-1-1 mark against San Francisco and Seattle. With Jeff Fisher heading into his second season as coach, St. Louis is expected to be much improved.
While 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will be without their top receiving weapons during training camp -- and likely even longer -- Rams quarterback Sam Bradford finds himself surrounded by more receiving talent than he has ever had as he heads into his fourth NFL season.
In April, St. Louis selected Tavon Austin, an explosive wide receiver from West Virginia who could line up in multiple spots on the field and also be a returner on special teams, with the eighth overall pick in the draft. Although a diminutive 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds, Austin never missed a game because of injury in high school or college, where he caught 114 passes for 1,289 yards and 12 TDs in 2012. His skills, which include elusiveness and top-end speed, remind a lot of NFL scouts of receivers such as Green Bay's Randall Cobb and, well, Harvin.
The Rams added another receiver in the third round, when they chose Stedman Bailey, Austin's West Virginia teammate. The 5-10, 193-pound Bailey was even more productive last year than Austin, catching 114 passes for 1,622 yards and a whopping 25 touchdowns.
In addition, Chris Givens returns after a promising rookie season during which he caught 42 passes for 698 yards and three touchdowns. He became the first rookie in NFL history to catch a pass for at least 50 yards in five consecutive games.
Third-year receiver Austin Pettis, now the "dean" among Rams wideouts, had the most impressive spring among all St. Louis players, according to Bradford and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who begins his second year in charge of the offense. The Rams are hoping that Brian Quick, drafted two rounds ahead of Givens, will make great strides after struggling through his rookie season. Also, the Rams picked up tight end Jared Cook in free agency. The former Titans player, who Fisher coached in Tennessee, is like a wide receiver in a tight end's body (6-5, 248) and could line up at different spots on the field.
Even though they lost oft-injured wide receiver Danny Amendola in free agency (he signed with New England), the Rams appear poised for a big season offensively -- especially if they can assemble a solid running game. With the offseason departure to Atlanta of Steven Jackson and his eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, Schottenheimer may have to rely on a young running backs by committee plan that includes second-year players Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, and Terrance Ganaway, and rookie Zac Stacy.
With Crabtree out in San Francisco, the 49ers must get receiving help from veteran Anquan Boldin, acquired in an offseason trade with Baltimore; fourth-year man Kyle Williams, who is returning from a torn ACL he suffered last November; and the so-far underwhelming A.J. Jenkins, a first-round pick last year who caught nary a pass as a rookie.
And in Seattle, the Seahawks were counting on Harvin to be a multiple threat after trading several draft picks to Minnesota for him and then signing him to a six-year, $67-million contract. In addition to his receiving skills, Harvin is considered a potential running weapon in the run-option offense as well as a returner (as he averaged 35.9 yards on 16 kickoff returns in 2012). But Harvin has had a history of migraines and other injuries, and now it looks like Seattle's biggest move of the offseason could backfire.
Like San Francisco, the Seahawks will need other receivers, such as Golden Tate, Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin, to step up even more. Otherwise, they may go from seeing the Rams in their rear view mirror to having them in the same playoff car.