Stevie Johnson is certainly pumped for the 2014 season and is excited to be part of the San Francisco 49ers receiving corps.
“Right now, we’re all ones,” Johnson told 49ers.com on Tuesday. “The defense has gotta pick their poison, whether they’re going to double-team Anquan, whether they’re going to double-team Crab, Vernon (Davis), me, Q.P. is coming in – you gotta pick your poison.”
It’s a bold statement, but it’s not entirely without merit.
Over that time period, Boldin is averaging 66.4 yards per game, Crabtree is right behind him at 62.9 yards per game and Johnson brings up the rear with 60.2 yards per game. They’re all in the top 30 in that particular statistic—so, with 32 teams in the NFL, you could argue that, by this definition, they all could be No. 1s somewhere in the league.
Whether or not you agree that they are all top targets, the 49ers receiving corps looks set to be San Francisco’s best since 2000, when Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes were catching passes from Jeff Garcia. For a team that’s had to put up with the likes of Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham and the aging remains of Randy Moss as its receiving options, it’s a refreshing change of pace.
How will the top three receivers and Vernon Davis be used together? Considering we missed a half-year of Crabtree and Boldin working together, it really is uncharted waters.
I went back and looked at the target data for all four players over the past three seasons. While this deals with their usage patterns under three different teams and multiple quarterbacks, it might help us have a better picture of where each receiver’s strengths lie and how they can be used together.
The following picture records each receiver’s targets and yards in 12 different areas of the field. It records it at different depths, ranging from passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage to ones hurled 20 or more yards down the field. It also records whether those targets came between the numbers or toward either sideline.
The first thing that jumps out is the lack of any work behind the line of scrimmage—none of the top four receivers is exactly going to be a threat on the bubble screen. For that, the 49ers will have to go to rookie Bruce Ellington. For now, at least, it seems like that’s not going to be a common part of San Francisco’s passing game.
With Johnson, you can see that more than 55 percent of his yardage happens between the numbers, more than any of the other three. Vernon Davis also does more of his work between the numbers than outside, but Johnson, with over 700 yards in the short-middle area of the field alone, has far outpaced both Crabtree and Boldin in that department.
Part of that comes from Johnson’s usage in the slot. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 273 of Johnson’s 383 routes came out of the slot last season, 21st most in the league. By comparison, Boldin was San Francisco’s leading slot receiver last year, with only 221 out of 462 routes in the slot.
The addition of Johnson is going to let Boldin and Crabtree attack from the wide positions more frequently; Boldin shouldn’t move inside any more when they go to three-wide sets. Crabtree has seen nearly a third of his yards on the left side of the field, while Boldin’s yards are more evenly split.
An interesting wrinkle when it comes to lineups is the deep ball. Boldin, at 25 percent of his yards, and Davis, at nearly 40 percent, are the two receiving options who do the most damage deep downfield. Crabtree’s only been targeted deep 33 times over the past three seasons, and while Johnson has picked up 45 targets, he hasn’t been phenomenally successful.
The 49ers’ only deep threat last season was Davis, who had 409 yards on 11 receptions targeted 20 or more yards down the field, most among tight ends (subscription required). Without the addition of a home run threat in the draft, it will be Davis’ job once again to go over the top for big plays.
With the addition of Johnson, however, the 49ers could let Boldin loose deep, as well. Boldin was thrown eight catchable deep balls last season, catching seven of them for 202 yards (subscription required). In Baltimore, Boldin was the second deep-ball option behind Torrey Smith. Perhaps he’ll see his targets go up to Baltimore’s levels, with a healthy Crabtree and Johnson working the short and intermediate routes.
Of course, to use Boldin and Davis deep, the 49ers will be counting on Colin Kaepernick’s deep-ball skills. Kaepernick completed 45.6 percent of his deep passes last year, tied for fifth in the league (subscription required). However, he did this on only 57 attempts, which are hardly Peyton Manning or Drew Brees-like numbers.
If Kaepernick can keep his accuracy at that level while upping his number of attempts, the 49ers have the potential to have a solid deep passing attack this season. It also would open up more room for Crabtree and Johnson to work underneath.
If Stevie Johnson can do things like this on a regular basis, and with the return of a healthy Crabtree for the entire season, the 49ers offense is bound to take off.
Last season, the 49ers ranked 30th in terms of raw passing yards, as they trotted out the likes of Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham at the receiver position. While we can’t know precisely what would happen if we replaced them with Crabtree and Johnson, we can take an educated guess.
Here’s the receiving stats for each of the 49ers’ miscellaneous receivers last season:
|49ers Wide Receivers Not Named Crabtree or Boldin|
|Pro Football Focus|
Let’s run a thought experiment, and replace those pass targets with shots at Crabtree and Johnson. We’ll plug Crabtree and Johnson’s catch rate and yards per catch into the targets, and see what we get. We’ll arbitrarily give Crabtree two-thirds of the targets and Johnson the remaining third, just to get a result:
|Thought Experiment: Crabtree and Johnson on the '13 Niners|
|Pro Football Focus|
Before even adjusting for the fact that the 49ers would have thrown more with better receivers on the field, we’ve added 10 catches and more than 250 yards to the 49ers’ totals, which is enough to bump them up six spots on the net-passing-yards table.
Add the higher quality of receiver to a more open offensive strategy, and you have the makings of a very good passing offense. Now, all that remains to be seen is if Greg Roman and the offense can put all the pieces together.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.