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Gauging Crabtree's development on the field is even more difficult.

The team has remained vague about the wide receiver's status, and the 20 minutes or so reporters were allowed to watch individual drills at the beginning of practice Thursday only muddled the matter more.

Crabtree gingerly ran several slants and over-the-middle patterns. He never showed any burst — of course, there was no defense, so he never really had to. He caught at least two passes from Kaepernick, but also made little effort for an overthrown pass from third-stringer McLeod Bethel-Thompson.

"Looks like Mike's always looked," Roman said.

The 49ers are preaching patience with Crabtree's return. He has made major strides since tearing his right Achilles tendon in 7-on-7 drills during an organized team activity May 21 and having surgery soon after.

Harbaugh said from the start that Crabtree would return this season — even targeting late November, which seemed optimistic in a sport as physical as football. The 49ers activated Crabtree from the physically unable to perform list Tuesday to the 53-man active roster, leading to increased debate about when he'll play.

"If he feels good, I think he'll play. He looks good to me in practice," running back Frank Gore said. "Hopefully he'll play. Crab's a beast, man."

There's no doubt the 49ers could use Crabtree's services — and fast. He had career bests of 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns last season, and he was at his best after Kaepernick took over the starting job from Alex Smith.

San Francisco's inconsistent passing game has relied heavily on two players.

Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis are the only 49ers who have caught a touchdown pass this season. San Francisco's passing game had a bit of a revival in a 27-6 win at Washington on Monday night, getting help from the re-emergence of another receiver.

Mario Manningham made four catches for 45 yards against the Redskins in his best performance in three games this season since returning from right knee surgery. Davis caught four passes for 70 yards, and Boldin hauled in five for 94 yards and two touchdowns.

Getting Crabtree back — and back in top form — to add to that group is something the 49ers have imagined all year.

"My vision is Anquan complementing Michael after he scores a touchdown. Michael complementing Anquan after he scores a touchdown," Roman said. "I think at the root of it are two guys that are very, very dependable receivers that can get open and catch the football. I think anytime you can balance out the field, it's a bonus. Bringing Michael Crabtree back adds value anyway you look at it."

NOTES: Adam Snyder will make his second straight start at left guard in place of Mike Iupati (left knee), Roman said. ... CB Tarell Brown (ribs), TE Garrett Celek (hamstring) and DT Ray McDonald (ankle) did not practice. ... LBs NaVorro Bowman (knee, shoulder), Ahmad Brooks (stinger), Aldon Smith (shoulder) and Dan Skuta (foot), and DT Justin Smith (shoulder), WR Quinton Patton (foot), Manningham (knee) and Gore (ankle) were limited in practice.

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