When the 49ers went shopping for talented wide receivers to bolster the team’s greatest weakness last season, one of the first stops they made was the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, signing Mario Manningham in free agency. Now that Manningham is a 49er, and with virtually all of the receiving positions up for grabs, he could become a key piece of the 49ers offense this season.
“I’m getting it down, trying to get better every day,” Manningham said after training camp practice this last week. “I’m just trying to learn something new every day. I’m trying to learn the big picture of the offense, not just my position.”
As the 49ers face off against one of the best defenses in the league in practice every week, Manningham is earning some respect on the practice field. Cornerback Tarell Brown, after dueling with Manningham, summed him up. “Quickness, explosiveness, a very polished receiver,” Brown said. “He’s very swift in and out of his breaks.”
Brown describes facing off against Manningham at the line like trying to face down a point guard in basketball. Brown said, “It’s like he’s crossing over with a basketball out there. You really have to be patient and he makes you patient out there when you’re guarding him every day.”
Manningham has been savoring the one-on-one battles as an opportunity to get better every day. “When I go out there against a DB, we’re all a team now, but I’m trying to win,” said Manningham. “I’m trying to get the best of you. It’s competition, friendly competition, but still we’re all men out there and we want to win.”
The 49ers got to see Manningham up close in two matchups with the Giants last season, and Manningham actually had his best game of the season in their regular season meeting, catching 6 balls for 77 yards and one touchdown.
While he didn’t have quite as gaudy numbers in their NFC Championship Game matchup (one reception for 17-yard touchdown), even that catch outperformed the entire 49ers wide receiving corps in that game. All of the 49ers receivers accounted for 1 catch for 3 yards (by Michael Crabtree) in the Championship game. Hence the focus on upgrades. Tight end Vernon Davis had a stellar day with 3 catches for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns, Frank Gore had 6 catches for 45 yards and the 49ers’ other tight end, Delanie Walker, added 2 catches for 36 yards. Even a respectable showing by the wide outs would likely have put the 49ers into the Super Bowl instead of the Giants.
So the 49ers added Mario Manningham along with future Hall of Famer Randy Moss (coming off a year away from the game) and used their first round draft pick to take A.J. Jenkins. The trio of new receivers will battle with Crabtree, Kyle Williams and the rest of the receivers in camp for the starting positions.
So far, Manningham has been used in the slot significantly, a position he is used to playing from his days in New York. And he has been benefiting from the presence of Randy Moss, who has been earning high marks for his football IQ.
“I try to pick his brain about every little thing knowing he’s seen so many different coverages,” Manningham said. “He’s played with different quarterbacks, played in different offenses. I just try to look at the big picture of everything and not just what we have to do. I ask him about details, just seeing different things how to get off the jam or how to attack different angles.”
It’s yet to be seen how the new pieces will fit. The 49ers are likely to still look to run the ball first and not make mistakes, in typical Harbaugh fashion, but they should have the tools to open up the offense a bit more as compared with last season. And while receivers are usually concerned about their numbers and getting involved in the offense, Manningham is far more concerned with winning.
“We’ve got a bunch of good receivers and there’s only one ball, if we’ve got to run the ball the whole game to win, that’s perfectly fine with me,” Manningham said. “I’m all about the team.”
If he doesn’t have gaudy numbers, but Manningham gets to back-to-back Super Bowls, that will be just fine with him, too.