By Gabe Schapiro
Despite having a couple of shaky weeks, the San Francisco 49ers (6-2) are having another strong season. They sit in second place in the NFC West, just one game behind the Seattle Seahawks. They have some tough matchups left on their schedule, but the good news is that they have some reinforcements coming.
Before the season even started they were dealing with several major injuries to some key players on their roster, and during the season have dealt with some other odd circumstances that have kept a couple players from being active. While others have stepped up and compensated well, several of those players are on their way back and could be contributing to the stretch drive sooner rather than later.
In Week 16 last season wide receiver Mario Manningham tore his ACL and PCL. It’s been a long road back, but he has now resumed practicing with the team and is tentatively expected to make his return in Week 10 against the Carolina Panthers. While he isn’t a huge difference maker, he could bring a much-needed boost to a passing attack sorely lacking in weaponry outside of Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis. San Francisco should remain a run-first time, but adding another weapon or two for Colin Kaepernick to utilize should help keep defenses honest.
Cornerback Eric Wright was signed in early August, but has spent the last six weeks on the non-football illness list. He was recently cleared to resume practicing, however, and could be activated shortly. The 49ers secondary has been very good so far this season, and represent the third best defense against the pass in the NFL this year. With that said, however, having more depth is never a bad thing. Wright has had his fair share of off the field problems, but there is little doubt that he is still a talented player.
In terms of making a larger impact, the return of star linebacker Aldon Smith appears to be imminent. Smith last played in Week 3, but has been in rehab since. The hope is that he has dealt with some of his internal demons, and has been activated from the reserve/NFI list. The return of Smith, one of the best pass rushers in all of football, could be a huge boon for the an already strong 49ers defensive unit. Despite having only played in three games this season, he still leads the team in sacks with 4.5. It is still uncertain whether he will make his return in Week 10 or 11.
Looking a little farther down the road, Michael Crabtree remains on track to return in a few weeks. Last season he was easily the best receiver the 49ers had, and his return could be huge for the offense. He is truly a game changer, and the plan for now seems to be to ease him back into action with the hopes that he can be as close to 100% as possible come playoff time. In the span of a few short weeks a sluggish passing attack could take on an entirely new look with the additions of Crabtree and the aforementioned Manningham.
It’s impressive how the 49ers have managed to adjust to having several of their key players out for extended periods of time this season. If they can get all of these players back to full strength soon, they will once again pose a scary foe for any opponents as they make another playoff run.