BALTIMORE -- An exhibition opener shouldn't mean much for a 12th-year veteran. But these are special circumstances for Anquan Boldin.

Closure is on Boldin's mind as he begins another potential Super Bowl run. He wants to thank Baltimore Ravens fans, a year and a half after his stunning trade to the 49ers, a team he helped the Ravens beat only 37 days earlier in Super Bowl XLVII.

"It'll be a chance to say goodbye to the fans in a proper way," Boldin said. "I wasn't afforded that opportunity. I got traded while I was away."

When Boldin returned from a March 2013 relief mission to Africa, he took his distinguished career to the 49ers. He became Colin Kaepernick's leading target (almost by default) and had the Ravens second-guessing their swap for a sixth-round draft pick.

San Francisco 49ers Anquan Boldin (81) celebrates after a 16-yard run to set up the Frank Gore touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in the second quarter
San Francisco 49ers Anquan Boldin (81) celebrates after a 16-yard run to set up the Frank Gore touchdown against the St. Louis Rams in the second quarter at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. The 49ers won, 23-13. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group) (Josie Lepe)

"He kicked (butt) after the trade," said one opposing defensive coordinator, speaking on the condition of anonymity this week in a phone interview. "Baltimore had to be thinking, 'Why'd we trade him?' "

The Ravens, with financial needs elsewhere, wouldn't pay Boldin's $6 million salary. The 49ers gladly picked up that check, and they re-signed Boldin (two years, $12 million) before he hit free agency this past offseason.

The Boldin deal still has ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer stunned, calling it one of the franchise's biggest coups in years.

"Without going too hyperbole, this group can go to back-to-back Super Bowls, and if he can stay healthy and at this level three or four more years, he'll be one of the most valuable Niners ever," Dilfer said in a recent phone interview.


Advertisement

Last season's production (85 catches, 1,179 yards, seven touchdowns) wasn't a fluke. Dilfer calls Boldin the NFL's best slot receiver, from both a receiving and run-blocking standpoint.

Boldin anticipates his 2014 role to change with a deeper, healthier receiving corps, though that assumes Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd aren't too hobbled by leg injuries that kept them from practice this week.

Don't bet on a pass-first revolution, however. "I definitely don't think we're going to go away from the way we run the football, because we've done a great job the past couple years," Boldin said. "That's important, especially when you come down to December and January football, when you have to run the football and run it effectively."

Boldin has heard critics question his worth since his 2010 trade from Arizona to Baltimore. But he dismisses such talk, focusing instead on his prescribed role and to "work my butt off."

That work ethic is part of what makes Boldin a consummate pro with 11 years of experience.

"He may not be as fast as he used to be, but he knows football," cornerback Perrish Cox said. "All around, he's a beast."

The beast roared last Friday, when Boldin got kicked out of practice by coach Jim Harbaugh for fighting cornerback Darryl Morris after a short catch. The aforementioned defensive coordinator said he would love to have Boldin's fighting spirit on his side.

"He caught a ball one game in front of me and was yelling angrily. I said, 'I wish that dude was on my team.' He never stops," the coach said.

Harbaugh trumpeted Boldin's passion a few days after that practice fight, going so far as to say, "There's no more special practice player in all of football that I've ever seen. Special (in) the way he loves making the tough catch and competing at practice."

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.

THURSDAY'S EXHIBITION

49ers at Baltimore,
4:30 p.m. Ch. 5, NFL