San Francisco 49ers: Power-Ranking the Niners' Best Red Zone Threats
In 2011, the San Francisco 49ers ranked 30th in red zone efficiency with a rate of 40.68 percent, per NFL team rankings.. San Francisco averaged only 1.3 touchdowns in the red zone per game in 2011, while averaging a high 3.3 red zone scoring attempts per game. For as well-rounded a team as they are, red zone scoring has been a deficiency in their game.
In all fairness, the 49ers were blindsided by a personnel move gone wrong and multiple injuries throughout the season. After Braylon Edwards didn't work out as planned, it made losing Josh Morgan that much harder—especially since he was the team's leading receiver at the time of his injury.
Kyle Williams wound up concussed and Delanie Walker broke his jaw against the Seattle Seahawks late in the season. San Francisco did not have any weapons to lean on in the passing game, limiting what Alex Smith was capable of in 2011.
Entering the 2012 season, the Niners have an evolving new-look offense that is all of a sudden loaded with speed and big-play ability. In the following piece, we will analyze and power-rank the 49ers top red zone weapons this season.
No. 6: Michael Crabtree, WR
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In 2011, Michael Crabtree's four touchdown receptions in the regular season led the 49ers. But Crabtree is much better suited to work the length of the field, getting San Francisco in scoring position.
His skills can be used to tire out defenses, make catches from sideline-to-sideline for first downs and gain extra yards after the catch.
However, plays designed for him in the red zone—like the two-point conversion we saw against the New York Giants in Week 10 or the touchdown slant vs. the Saints—should provide him with chances to score in such situations.
Additionally, having weapons around him will create opportunities for Crabtree to get open in the red zone. In his young pro career, Crabtree has never had a talented supporting cast. Since his arrival in San Franciso, he's been depended on as a true No. 1.
To have a more balanced offense, personnel-wise, will create new scenarios for the former first-round pick to be utilized.
No. 5: Brandon Jacobs, RB
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The 49ers added horsepower with this free-agent pickup, which seemed to be geared toward helping them cure their woes in the red zone. Brandon Jacobs will have tremendous value when the 49ers are inside the opponents' 5-yard line. The 49ers have a very good coaching staff that will have him running low and angry. He can be a wrecking ball in short yardage.
He also has supreme value on the swing routes and check-downs from further out in the opponent's red zone.
When Jacobs has the ball in open space and he's picked up a head of steam, he is awfully tough to bring down. If you can get him to the second level where only defensive backs remain, he'll tear through them.
This year, Mike Iupati, Bruce Miller and Brandon Jacobs should play a major role in punching the ball in the end zone in short yardage. Jacobs has 56 career rushing touchdowns, 27 of which have come on runs of 2 yards or less. Jacobs is 6'4", 265 pounds, and will run behind two extremely physical and talented run blockers in Iupati and Miller.
I would expect that to be the 49ers' focus in the red zone.
No. 4: Vernon Davis, TE
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Anywhere on the field, Vernon Davis is one of the 49ers' best weapons. A top-three player at his position, Davis has the rare combination of size, speed, strength and hands that allows him to be a mismatch for opposing defenders.
With his large frame, Davis excels at shielding defenders from the football, enabling him to make catches even when he's covered.
49ers quarterback Alex Smith has also developed a strong chemistry with the tight end, hitting him in clutch moments for big plays. Davis is also reliable. He's a focused player who can make the catches in big pressure moments.
In his first postseason appearance last season, he had a remarkable 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 29.2 yards per catch. As soon as Davis has the ball in his hands, he's thinking end zone.
As a unique hybrid player, the 49ers offensive coaching staff should be using their full offseason to scheme creative ways to utilize Davis in the red zone this season.
No. 3: Mario Manningham, WR
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Mario Manningham can be a real threat in the red zone this coming season.
The 49ers like the quick timing routes, and Manningham is quick off the line and has the agility to create early separation. Coming out of the slot, the underneath routes will be open to him. Manningham has excellent instincts as a receiver, having shown the ability to find soft spots in defensive secondaries when he was with the New York Giants.
With his combination of quickness and agility in the red zone, Manningham will be difficult to contain.
Manningham is also a surprisingly effective threat on the fade route. Like Santonio Holmes and Brandon Lloyd, Manningham is capable of making those clutch sideline grabs. With a high level of concentration, he can make catches in traffic, eyeing the ball in the entire way.
No. 2: Randy Moss, WR
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In the NFL, Moss is fifth all time in touchdowns from scrimmage with 153.
In his illustrious career, Moss has led the NFL in receiving touchdowns five times (1998, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2009) and he's been in the top five in that category on eight occasions.
In 2007, Moss led the NFL in touchdowns with a remarkable 23, scoring multiple times per game.
In nine seasons, the four-time first-team All-Pro has hit double-digit receiving touchdowns.
From a wide receiver standpoint, he has elite speed, height, leaping ability and some of the NFL's best hands. He routinely grabs passes thrown up high, even in triple coverage. His concentration and timing when attacking the football at its highest point is indefensible.
No. 1: LaMichael James, RB
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The 5'8", 194-pound LaMichael James, an Oregon legend, is entering his first year as a pro after a sensational college career. Drafted by San Francisco, James can be the 49ers' best red-zone threat. He is someone who defenses will have to account for because he is a truly dynamic player.
When the wide receivers and tight ends are taken away, Alex Smith will be able to check-down to James, who is explosive with the ball in his hands. He has the speed to get to the corner and can get invisible behind the offensive line in the red zone. He will also be nearly unstoppable on well-executed middle screens and shovel passes.
In 2010, he led the NCAA in points scored (144). The following year, James led the PAC-12 in points with 120.
In his career at Oregon, James scored 58 touchdowns. In three starting seasons as a collegian, James averaged 116 points a season. James was good for 19.3 touchdowns per season, despite playing four fewer games than in the NFL.
James knows how to find the end zone. His 53 rushing touchdowns at Oregon rank seventh all time in NCAA history.