NFL Study Hall: Examining Colin Kaepernick's Development and Vernon Davis' Role
Although he just has 10 career starts under his belt, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick isn't going to be treated like your typical young quarterback. That tends to happen when you lead your team to the Super Bowl as quickly as he did and in the manner in which he did.
That manner would be something along the lines of going 5-2 over your first seven career starts, which would also happen to be the final seven games of the season for a playoff contender. You can call that a fortuitous opportunity if you so please.
Where Kaepernick really shined though was in the playoffs. He completed 49 of 80 (61.3 percent) passes for 798 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions in the 49ers' three playoff games. Not to mention rushing for 264 yards on 25 carries (10.6 YPC) and three touchdowns in those games as well.
There aren't going to be a lot of people that'll forget his performance in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers either. Kaepernick amassed more than 440 yards of total offense and scored four touchdowns, two on the ground and two through the air in that game.
Could it translate over to next season, and what does this mean for 2013?
It means Kaepernick has already moved on to the "prove it" stage of his NFL career. He showed us last season that he can win big games and the stage won't be too big for him. He went on the road in the playoffs and beat a very good Atlanta Falcons team in a close game, and he did it by leading the offense to two fourth quarter touchdown drives, giving the 49ers a 28-24 victory. That's an invaluable lesson to learn with a young quarterback this early in his career. He doesn't seem to get wide-eyed by the moment.
Kaepernick will have to prove that last season wasn't some kind of a fluke, that he can make adjustments to the different defensive looks that he will undoubtedly be presented with next season, and that the crushing offseason injury to wide receiver Michael Crabtree won't derail the season before it even starts.
Below is a simple table that shows the production the 49ers got from Michael Crabtree in Kaepernick's 10 career starts, which includes the three playoff games.
Crabtree was obviously a big part of the 49ers' offense. He grabbed 20 receptions for 285 yards and three touchdowns in their three playoff games alone. This chart above gives you the exact numbers that you're looking to replace next season.
Who's going to make up that slack?
The most important offseason move the 49ers made was bringing over Anquan Boldin via trade with the Baltimore Ravens. After the injury to Crabtree, this move looks brilliant. Boldin hauled in 65 passes for 921 yards and four touchdowns last season in Baltimore.
Even with the addition of Boldin, this offense is going to be centered around and dependent upon the chemistry between Kaepernick and tight end Vernon Davis.
It wasn't an instant connection on the field between the two of them.
As you can see in this table, the 49ers got more production in the three playoff games out of Davis than they did in the last seven games of the regular season. What's even worse is that 83 of those 144 yards receiving in the seven regular-season games came in Kaepernick's first start against the Chicago Bears. So Davis had six catches for 61 yards in the final six regular-season games for San Francisco.
So what changed in the playoffs?
In fairness it could have been a lot of things. It could simply be that it just took time for the two of them to get on the same page, maybe the 49ers schemed more plays to Davis in the playoffs because he hadn't been as involved.
Whatever the reason, the facts remain that Davis had just three 100-yard games last season, two of which were the last two games of the season. He had five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons and then six catches for 104 yards against the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Speaking of the Super Bowl, here's a detailed look at one pass play from Kaepernick to Davis from that game that really shows all of what made Kaepernick so good late in the season for the 49ers.
The 49ers initially show a pistol look with running back Frank Gore lined up directly behind Kaepernick.
Before the snap the Ravens slide their defensive lineman to their left and bring linebacker Terrell Suggs in off the edge. You can see Suggs coming up on the left tackle from the left side of the screen. When they make this move you can see Kaepernick adjust accordingly.
Frank Gore comes down and lines up to Kaepernick's left in Shotgun after the defensive line change. You'll see Dannelle Ellerbe, linebacker for the Ravens, highlighted in this screenshot. He's going to be the read for Kaepernick on this play as the two in-line tight ends for the 49ers come across the field.
Right off the snap the 49ers are faking the run with Frank Gore on what appears to look like a read-option. (In case you haven't read Matt Miller's breakdown on the read-option it's highly recommended). You'll see that 49ers tight end Delanie Walker has a free release to the middle of the field, and Davis is just about to get knocked from his initial route by the strong-side backer. Ellerbe is reading the play action and is about to notice Walker headed his direction.
In this shot you'll notice Kaepernick's is looking towards Ellerbe and Ellerbe is looking at Walker heading towards him. Davis is just behind Walker and is going to make a very similar move across the field that Walker did but just a few yards deeper down the field. The timing is critical for these two tight ends on this play in order to create the right throwing window for Kaepernick.
From this angle you can see the two outside receivers are clearing it out for the tight ends coming across the field.
The first thing you'll notice in this picture is how clean the pocket is for Kaepernick. The offensive line did a fantastic job on this play. Kaepernick is looking right at Walker coming across the field, and you'll notice that Ellerbe has committed on Walker's route. He's planted his back foot and is driving on what he hopes will be a pass to Walker coming across the field. You'll also see that Davis gets to the top of his route and plants his right foot in the ground and starts heading across the field.
Kaepernick looking at Walker forces Ellerbe to commit, which in turn opens up a throwing lane behind him to Davis coming across the field. These are little nuances that sometimes aren't caught while watching the game live.
Here's the throwing lane created by the initial look to Walker. Ellerbe was the read because the far outside receivers were clearing out space for these routes to come across the field. If Ellerbe doesn't commit, which would take away this open throwing lane to Davis, then Kaepernick just has to wait until Walker crosses Ellerbe's face and then lead him to the outside to pick up positive yardage on the edge.
What we can see from this picture is how accurate that pass was from Kaepernick. He perfectly led Davis across the field on a dart thrown past the Ravens seasoned linebacker, Ray Lewis, who actually didn't have bad coverage on the play.
The other thing worth noting in this picture is the position of Ravens strong safety Bernard Pollard (circled in yellow in top left). He is less than 10 yards away from Davis when the ball enters Davis' catching radius. Pollard is a hitter, and he lives for moments just like this. This pass not only needed to be accurate in order to get it away from tight coverage by Lewis on the backside, but it also had to be thrown hard enough that Davis has time to get his head around and make a move in the open field so he's not a sitting duck for a head-hunter like Pollard.
Davis gets his head around after the catch and plants his right foot down so he can head directly across the field. Pollard has all of his weight on his left foot, and that's going to make it difficult for him to get a proper angle on Davis. Again, this was all set up because of an accurately thrown ball. Wide receivers like accurate quarterbacks not only because of the production they could get, but also simply for self-preservation.
Sure, this is just one play plucked from the hundreds that we have on Kaepernick from last season. But this play is important because it shows us so many things. The pre-snap recognition and subsequent formation change, proper footwork in setting up the throw, manipulation with the body, eyes and shoulders to get Ellerbe to commit to the underneath route and then just the physical abilities to deliver an accurate strike down the field sandwiched between two defenders, one of which was looking for a monster hit on your guy.
It was a big-time play in a big-time situation from a young quarterback. He showed poise, presence and the necessary physical abilities as a pocket passer to give defensive coordinators nightmares moving forward.
Will Vernon Davis gain at least 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career in 2013?
Colin Kaepernick's biggest obstacle next season is handling the different defensive looks he'll get week in and week out now that teams have more information to work with in how the 49ers like to play with him under center. He's only played in 10 games, which means teams didn't have a lot of tape (or time) to try and figure out how to stop Kaepernick and the read-option last season. They don't have that luxury anymore as teams will be gunning for them and had a whole offseason to figure something out.
The 49ers need Davis to step up and absorb some of the production lost from the injury to Crabtree. That much is obvious. If the last two games of 2012 are any indication of what we'll see from Kaepernick and Davis in 2013, then a bounce-back year from Davis and a successful sophomore year from Kaepernick are on the horizon.
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