Breaking Down Vernon Davis' Expanded Role in 49ers Offense
In the process the 49ers will likely continue to improve their ability to be scheme multiple and deceptive on offense.
According to Grant Cohn of The (Santa Rosa) Press-Democrat, Davis "participated exclusively" with the wide-receiver group during San Francisco's June minicamp. Considering Davis has spent his entire NFL career as a tight end, Cohn's discovery was certainly worth noting.
The decision to give Davis more time at receiver likely has its roots in a few different factors.
For one, the 49ers are dealing with the loss of receiver Michael Crabtree, who tore his Achilles tendon and is expected to miss a significant portion of next season. Having Davis spend time as a perimeter receiver could help temporarily fill the hole left by Crabtree to start 2013.
Also, the month of June typically presents a perfect opportunity for NFL teams to experiment with new ideas. What is attempted in the summer is not always a reflection of the product seen in the fall.
Len Pasquarelli of the National Football Post spoke with the 49ers and confirmed that Davis is not making a full-time switch to receiver. However, he also learned that San Francisco is planning some "new wrinkles" for the versatile tight end.
Here's a look at how the 49ers could be looking to expand Davis' role within the offense.
A More Imposing Vertical Threat
Few tight ends in the NFL are as gifted at exploiting vertical situations as Davis.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Davis finished the 2012 regular season with the second-most receptions at his position on passes that traveled 20 yards or more. His six receptions came on 12 targets, or over 20 percent of his total targets for the entire year.
Davis was also sure handed down the field, catching all six of his "catchable" targets, with zero drops.
In the postseason, Davis continued his vertical dominance by leading all tight ends with a playoff-high four catches over 20 yards. He also scored twice on passes traveling over 20 yards in the 2011 playoffs, which led all postseason tight ends.
Using Davis as an outside receiver may be one way for the 49ers to continue exploiting his skill set as a vertical threat.
By putting Davis outside, defenses will have to pick and choose how to defend him. Is a cornerback capable of handling the 6'3", 250-pound Davis on the perimeter? Can a defense afford to bring a safety down and expose the middle of the field? And will a linebacker be able to keep up with his speed (4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash)?
The 49ers will feel like they have a mismatch is almost every situation listed above.
That will be especially true when San Francisco stays in its traditional packages, with just two receivers and two running backs (one fullback). In this scenario, the 49ers can have the luxury of sending Davis to the perimeter and Anquan Boldin to the slot, which will put pressure on defensive coordinators to counter package wise.
The nickel defense (to combat the two receivers plus Davis outside) will be shredded by the 49ers offensive line and running game, while a more traditional three-linebacker look could be exposed by Davis and his ability to win vertically against a less-athletic player.
Davis playing outside will also allow the 49ers to use Boldin in the slot during three-receiver sets, which is likely his best position at this point in his career.
Davis doesn't have to play receiver full time for the 49ers to get production from this experiment. By giving him more reps there now, San Francisco can feel even more comfortable getting results when the offense varies its looks and packages.
Again, the idea here is to increase the versatility and playmaking potential of a difference-maker.
Improved Slot Production
Helping to replace the production of Crabtree on the outside is certainly one driving force for giving Davis reps at receiver. But the 49ers may really be looking to improve what they get from Davis when he lines up in the slot.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Davis ran a total of 161 routes from the slot in the 2012 season. However, he caught just 12 passes and finished with one of the lowest yards-per-route averages at the position.
Not only did he fail to catch passes inside, but he struggled to get open. Despite his overwhelming physical traits, Davis finished behind 26 different tight ends in total slot targets (19).
The 49ers will want improvement there.
With a wide frame and elite movement skills, Davis should be a handful as a slot receiver. Again, defenses must decide how to defend him, and there's no easy answer. However, his route-running skills from the slot haven't been good enough for Davis to consistently take advantage of his physical skills.
This line of thinking could be part of the motivation behind getting Davis more experience at receiver. Already an accomplished tight end, with blocking now one of his best attributes, Davis can afford to spend June workouts refining and improving his route running.
If he does improve getting open on the inside, Davis could take a big step towards making up the loss of production from Crabtree. The best tight ends in the slot (Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez, etc.) caught upwards of 50 passes from the slot last season. Davis might not take that big of jump, but the 49ers will want better than what he produced inside in 2012.
Also, it's worth noting the recent trend of NFL offenses continuing to expand the field with multiple offenses. The 49ers have been leaders on this front. By improving Davis' ability in the slot, San Francisco can run more and more formations that send Davis wide and force the defense to cover the entire field.
If the 49ers are going to miss Crabtree anywhere, it'll be on third down. The former first-round pick broke out in a big way last season, and at least part of the reason why was his success moving the chains.
According to Cohn, Crabtree produced 57 total first downs last season, good for just 13th in the NFL among receivers. However, 22 of those 57 first downs came on third down, the fifth most. Even more, Crabtree made 11 first-down conversions on third downs of more than seven yards, second to only Reggie Wayne.
Davis was more of a third-down afterthought.
Of his 26 first-down-producing catches, only four came on third down. And just one produced a first down on a third down of more than seven yards.
This could be partly due to Crabtree and his efficiency converting third downs. The 49ers likely tailored game plans to get the football to Crabtree in these situations, with Davis, Randy Moss and others serving as second and third progressions.
With Crabtree out for the start of next season, however, the 49ers need to find new answers for the third-down riddle.
Boldin will certainly play a big factor, as he converted 16 third downs for the Baltimore Ravens in 2012. However, moving Davis to receiver could be viewed as an attempt from the 49ers to get more of the tight end on third down.
By giving Davis more versatility as both a perimeter and slot option, the 49ers are expanding how they game-plan the sport's most important plays.
He needs more experience in a two-point stance, where he can scan the defense pre-snap and get an idea what needs to be done to get open. So far in his career, he's been limited in that capacity.
For all his physical gifts, Davis should be one of the game's most dominant third-down weapons. If Davis can improve his ability to find soft spots, the 49ers will possess an offense that's very difficult to get off the field—regardless of down.
Goal: Versatility and Deception
The 49ers are not making Davis a full-time receiver, nor do they need to. By simply giving him more experience as a perimeter player, San Francisco is gaining more ability to be versatile and deceptive on offense.
And in the end, position means little to helping either cause.
There was no need for Davis to spend June workouts improving his ability to in-line block or beat a linebacker up the middle seam. He's already well versed in both areas, and the 49ers now have young tight ends (Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek, etc.) who need time to develop at the position. Remember, the offense must replace veteran Delanie Walker in 2013.
By giving Davis reps at receiver, the 49ers can feel more comfortable playing him as an outside receiver and in the slot. That comfort allows for more scheme versatility, and more scheme versatility typically means greater deception.
Even without Crabtree, the 49ers remain one of the most difficult offenses in football to game-plan for. Adding greater versatility to Davis' game will only multiply that difficulty.
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