With Braylon Edwards released and Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion) hurting, the 49ers are looking to promote a wide receiver from within. The likely candidate is Joe Hastings, a rookie free agent from tiny Washburn College who has been with the team since training camp.
Interestingly, fellow practice-squad receiver John Matthews, who played under Harbaugh at the University of San Diego, said Hastings is the likely choice.
"Joe Hastings is probably going to be the guy that comes up," Matthews said.
Hastings is a far cry from Braylon Edwards, a 6-3, 214-pound explosive playmaker and former Pro Bowl player. Edwards was also the third overall pick in the draft, while Hastings was undrafted.
Hastings is generously listed a 6-0, 190 pounds. He ran a 4.51 at the combine. But he did average 128.8 yards receiving at Washburn, which was second in the nation, and his speed is evident. He can get down the field and is crafty enough to find soft spots in the zone. He plays more like a slot receiver than a featured No. 1 option.
When the 49ers held receiver auditions in October after Joshua Morgan (broken leg) went on injured reserve, Hastings nearly beat out former Packer Brett Swain for Morgan's spot. However, a source said Hastings dropped too many passes. He did show better than former stars T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Chambers, who appeared out of shape.
The best veteran option at the time was former Falcon Brian Finneran, who might get a call should the 49ers need another wide receiver. Finneran more closely approximates Edwards with his 6-5 frame and he was in fine shape when he worked out.
Meanwhile most of Edwards' teammates were surprised he was released and some had great affection for him.
"I love Braylon. It definitely felt like I lost a brother, it did kind of hurt me a little bit," running back Anthony Dixon said. "I'm definitely down with the organization and all the choices they make so I can't say I'm mad about it but I liked Braylon."
Tight end Vernon Davis befriended Edwards right away and even supported him while he was on the team through his twitter account.
"He was a great guy and outstanding guy," said Davis, who spoke with Edwards after his release. "His whole thing is that he wants to get his knee right and he's going to kill it next year whoever he ends up with. He was really positive."
SERIES HISTORY: 124th regular-season meeting. Rams lead series, 61-60-2. The Rams eliminated the 49ers on Dec. 27 last year with a 25-17 win in St. Louis, something the 49ers used as motivation in their 26-0 whitewash of St. Louis on Dec. 4. That win assured the 49ers a divisional title. A win Sunday, and the 49ers are assured the second seed in the playoffs, which includes a bye and divisional round home game.
--Coach Jim Harbaugh refused to talk about Braylon Edwards or the reasons for his release, but it may have been over a discrepancy in his rehabilitation from knee and shoulder injuries. Edwards may have felt that going on injured reserve was the best option, while the 49ers may have felt as if Edwards should play through the injury.
One play that typified Edwards' short stay was his inability to break up an interception in the end zone on a long pass against the Ravens on Thanksgiving night. Cornerback Lardarius Webb got on the inside of Edwards, and Edwards made little effort to try and knock the ball away from him.
--Running back Anthony Dixon spent Christmas at his place in the Bay Area with his youngest brother Deshun, a outfielder in the Tampa Rays system. The brothers sat back and watched basketball, something that was unimaginable when they were growing up. "When my mom and dad got divorced, my mom just struggled," Dixon said recently. "We even went homeless at one point, stayed in a shelter. Had Christmas at Goodwill." As the eldest of four brothers, Anthony had to serve as a father figure. Now three of the four are professional athletes, with third brother Rashun a Single-A outfielder with the Oakland A's.
--Alex Smith tied Joe Montana's team record for the most fourth-quarter comebacks in one season with five. Montana set the record in 1989, the only time the 49ers faced the Rams in the playoffs. Behind Jim Everett, the Rams met the 49ers in the NFC title game that year. The Rams kicked a field goal to start the game and then the 49ers rattled off 30 straight points. The 49ers went on to win their second straight Super Bowl with a 55-10 flattening of the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.
--Jim Harbaugh marvels at his father Jack, a former college coach. "He's got a couple doubles because Kentucky and Indiana are playing (basketball). Indiana gets the big win, I see my dad right behind the bench, and man, there must be two or three of this guy. He's in Baltimore. He's in San Francisco. He's in a lot of places." Jack and his wife Jackie reside in Milwaukee, but Jim said they are rarely there.
--Harbaugh scored big points with his wife Sarah on Christmas Day by walking around the Stanford campus with their two young daughters. Harbaugh also said he was watching a college football game with his father, Jack, when he heard Sarah coming down the stairs. He quickly switched the channel to Peppa Pig, a children's program more suitable to his young daughters. Harbaugh also hit the floor and started working on a puzzle with his daughters. "That won some points," he said. "That was a good move, good strategic move. She was very pleased with me."
--LB Aldon Smith was not only left off the Pro Bowl list, he wasn't even named as an alternate. The main reason Smith wasn't on the ballot was because he's not a starter. "It makes sense," Smith said. "But if you're balling you should go." Smith has 14 sacks this year, just a half-sack away from establishing a new rookie record for sacks in a season. His youth is one reason he wasn't overly disappointed with the Pro Bowl snub. "This is not my last year playing football," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS: Plus-26 - The 49ers' league-leading turnover ratio. The team has the most takeaways in the league with 36 and the fewest turnovers with 10. The turnover ratio is tied for third most in league history since 1970.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "In a lot of ways, Crab saved Christmas." - Coach Jim Harbaugh on wide receiver Michael Crabtree's 41-yard catch that led to the winning field goal in the 19-17 defeat of Seattle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The nature of the 49ers' running game has changed, with Frank Gore no longer the so-called "bell cow." Since knee, ankle and arm injuries have reduced his effectiveness, the 49ers have used more of a running back by committee system with Kendall Hunter and even quarterback Alex Smith.
The team might also need to figure out how to replace tight end Delanie Walker in this game and maybe in the playoffs. Not only is Walker a key part of the offense, but he's a key special teams player, particularly in punt and kickoff coverage.
Safety Reggie Smith, cornerback Chris Culliver and wide receiver Brett Swain could be candidates to return kicks and punts if neither Ted Ginn Jr. nor Kyle Williams are available Sunday in St. Louis. A shoulder injury might keep Culliver from return duties however.
--K David Akers had a good week. He established a new NFL record with 42 field goals, was named to his sixth Pro Bowl and was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week with four field goals in the Seattle win.
--OLB Aldon Smith got 10 snaps as an outside linebacker in the 3-4, and might get more in St. Louis.
--QB Alex Smith has a TD/INT ratio of 3.20 this season (16 touchdowns and five interceptions), which ranks fourth in 49ers history.
--DE Justin Smith has served as the defensive team captain in the last four games, while LB Patrick Willis recovers from a hamstring injury.
--TE Konrad Reuland, who has been on the practice squad all year, would be the logical choice to replace the injured Delanie Walker if Walker goes on injured reserve.
--WR Brett Swain, who was signed in October and has one catch this year, could see significant time in St. Louis with the injuries to Kyle Williams (concussion) and Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle).
--TE Delanie Walker has his jaw wired shut and is on a liquid diet according to his teammates. Coach Jim Harbaugh said the team would make a decision whether to put him on injured reserve in the next five to seven days.
--WR Ted Ginn (ankle) and WR Kyle Williams (concussion) did not participate in practice Wednesday. Williams also has a laceration on his neck after getting hit during a kickoff return.
--LB Patrick Willis, who has missed four games with a hamstring injury, practiced in a limited fashion Wednesday and could return for the season finale.
--CB Carlos Rogers (knee), FB Bruce Miller (knee), CB Chris Culliver (shoulder) were all limited in practice Wednesday, but are likely to play Sunday.
GAME PLAN: The 49ers plan might be more based on situation than opponent. If the team goes up three scores, the 49ers might have mass substitutions in order to preserve players for the playoffs. With a lead, the 49ers might feature wide receiver Brett Swain so quarterback Alex Smith can get comfortable with him. Another change could include more plays at outside linebacker for rookie pass rusher Aldon Smith. He had 10 snaps in the base 3-4 defense last week in Seattle and could get more for this game.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: 49ers OLB Aldon Smith, who needs a sack to beat Jevon Kearse's 1999 record for most sacks in a season by a rookie, vs. Rams Ts Mark LeVoir and Bryan Mattison, who are guards playing tackle because of injury.
49ers RT Anthony Davis, who sometimes struggles in pass protection, vs. Rams LDE Chris Long, who had two sacks against Davis in the first game.
The Rams' offensive philosophy, which might entail a go-for-broke mentality, vs the 49ers defense, which is one of the more conservative schemes in the league.