49ers' Morgan cueing up breakout season

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It's an offseason afternoon at San Francisco 49ers headquarters and young receiver Josh Morgan is reaching deep into the team's video archives.

He cues up vintage 49ers practice footage featuring Jerry Rice, the player his grandfather taught him to admire from an early age.

"They've got it on old Beta tapes, those little small ones," Morgan later says. "It's the old-school technology."

Morgan watches Rice run specific routes in practice, then in games, and he is awestruck.

"If you just imagined the DB not being there, the way he runs routes in games looks exactly the same as when you watch old practice film of him running," Morgan says. "All his routes, he got in and out of within two steps. It's scary. It's scary that a guy could work that hard to be that great."

Morgan has yet to strike fear into opponents during his brief career. Staph infection and a groin tear conspired against him as a rookie, limiting Morgan to 20 catches.

Healthy again, Morgan is an ascending player with the ability and opportunity to break out -- as long as he stays patient in a run-oriented offense. He appeared destined for the starting lineup even if first-round draft choice Michael Crabtree had signed and reported to camp on time. With Crabtree still unsigned and free-agent addition Brandon Jones sidelined well into the season, Morgan and Isaac Bruce are clearly the primary options at wide receiver.

Longer term, Morgan projects as a solid No. 2 receiver for years to come.

"Does [Morgan] have the potential? Absolutely," coach Mike Singletary said, "but a guy like Isaac Bruce isn't around a long time for nothing. He knows what he is doing. He knows the workout routine he has to have. He knows how to be effective. He knows the routes. Time is one of the things that will answer that question."

Morgan had a reputation to live down. An arrest for disorderly conduct while at Virginia Tech and questions about Morgan's attitude and dedication pushed down his draft stock. As a rookie, Morgan impressed the 49ers with his ability to grasp offensive concepts quickly. The 49ers became convinced they'd gotten a steal in the sixth round.

"The guy has unbelievable talent," quarterback Shaun Hill said. "He's such a hard worker and a good kid -- a good young man, I should say. I can't say enough good things about him."

The 49ers list Morgan at 6 feet tall and 219 pounds, thick for a receiver. Morgan reported for training camp 5 pounds lighter than his target weight, his body fat down from 8 or 9 percent as a rookie to 3.8 percent this summer. Massive thighs still compel Morgan to buy oversized jeans, but he said his preferred waist size has dropped from 38 to 32.

Such was the power, largely, of the 49ers' decision to draft Crabtree.

Morgan was modeling the 49ers' new uniforms at a team-organized draft party when the team unexpectedly found Crabtree available later than anticipated. The 49ers drafted the Texas Tech receiver with the 10th overall choice. Not long after, Morgan recalled reading a magazine story suggesting his looming obsolescence.

"I don't know what magazine it was in, but I read it the whole summer, over and over again," Morgan said.

The part questioning Morgan's speed "triggered" something in him. Morgan reported spending extra time at the track with 49ers teammate and fellow Washington, D.C. native Vernon Davis, and Davis' younger brother, Miami Dolphins first-round choice Vontae Davis. Their trainer would make up workouts from hell.

They might run 10 100s in less than 12 seconds apiece, six 200s in less than 22 seconds each and two 400s in a time Morgan couldn't quite recall, other than to say it was less than 50 seconds.

"You start praying for your legs so you can walk to your car and get home after that workout," he said.

Morgan hasn't dented the stat sheet much through two exhibition games, catching one pass for 7 yards Saturday night against the Raiders. The 49ers have been shuttling quarterbacks through the offense and trying to establish a hard-nosed identity through the ground game. Rookie third-round choice Glen Coffee leads the NFL this preseason with 196 yards rushing, 56 more than any player.

Raye will run the offense through running back Frank Gore when the games start counting. Davis, a Pro Bowl alternate at tight end last season, often led the 49ers in receptions during training camp practices. Bruce remains Mr. Reliable.

None of them possesses Morgan's combination of size, speed, youth, hands, blocking ability, versatility and knack for learning complex offenses.

"In a three-wide set, he could play all three positions, including the slot," Raye said. "He can pla
y both 'X' and 'Z', and so that makes him, in a game-day situation, a real plus, a real positive."

Morgan averaged 16 yards per reception as a rookie. His three touchdown passes covered 48, 31 and 30 yards. Morgan can also deliver in the run game, as when he cleared out a Raiders linebacker to spring Coffee for a long gain Saturday.

"For a big-bodied guy, for a big receiver, he has excellent explosion," Raye said. "He doesn't look like he would have that kind of explosion, but he's an explosive guy, a great leaper. Because of his arms, his circumference range is very good. He can get to some balls with extension that some guys cannot."

Morgan wants to improve his route-running and ability to recognize defenses. He couldn't have a mentor better equipped than Bruce -- unless Rice came out of retirement.

"I'm nowhere near Isaac Bruce level and definitely nowhere near a Jerry Rice level," Morgan said. "I have to get a lot better because those are the expectations I have for myself and the expectations Coach Singletary has for me."