San Francisco 49ers: Evolving the Passing Attack in 2014

Bryan KnowlesContributor IIIJune 19, 2014

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin (81) catches a pass during NFL football mini-camp in Santa Clara, Calif., Tuesday, June 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The San Francisco 49ers enter the 2014 with the second-most productive receiving corps ever assembled.

As first mentioned by Chase Stuart, the 49ers are only the second team in history to have five receivers on their roster who, coming into the season, have had years where they’ve earned at least 965 receiving yards:

2014 San Francisco 49er Receivers' Career Highs
Brandon Lloyd2010Denver1,448
Anquan Boldin2005Arizona1,402
Michael Crabtree2012San Francisco1,105
Stevie Johnson2010Buffalo1,073
Vernon Davis2009San Francisco965

Of course, Vernon Davis is holding out, and Lloyd’s not a guarantee to make the roster, but it’s still quite the collection of talent—a significant improvement over the players suiting up in 2013 for the team.  The only other team to put together a greater combination of past talent?  The 2012 New England Patriots:

2012 New England Patriots Receivers' Career Highs
Wes Welker2011New England1,569
Brandon Lloyd2010Denver1,448
Rob Gronkowski2011New England1,327
Kellen Winslow2007Cleveland1,106
Deion Branch2005New England998

The 2012 Patriots, of course, put together a great offensive season, throwing for 4,662 passing yards, fourth-most in the league.  They were the top passing offense in football, according to Football Outsiders, with a DVOA rating of 53.9 percent.

Of course, those Patriots had the advantage of starting a Hall of Fame quarterback in the back half of his prime in Tom Brady—a far step up from Colin Kaepernick at this point in his career, no matter how optimistic you are about his potential.

The 49ers didn't air it out too much in 2013.
The 49ers didn't air it out too much in 2013.Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

The 2012 Patriots threw the ball 641 times, while last year’s 49ers only attempted 417 passes.  When you adjust for the game situation (i.e., teams generally throw less when ahead), the 49ers were only the 20th-most pass-happy team in 2013, while the Patriots were the second-most pass-happy squad in 2012, according to 

The fact that the 49ers were 20th last season, rather than at the bottom, is an intriguing point, however.  Just based on raw numbers, the 49ers were dead last in passing attempts

However, they were up by an average of 5.86 points last season; of course they spent more time pounding the rock with Frank Gore.  Considering they were missing Michael Crabtree for most of the regular season, it’s a bit surprising the passing numbers were even that high.

In fact, when adjusting for leads, the 49ers actually passed more last season than they did in 2012, where they finished as the 26th-most pass-happy team, per  Part of this can be attributed to their confidence in Kaepernick compared to Alex Smith, as well as Kaepernick’s continued development as a starting quarterback.

To fully take advantage of the potential weapons Kaepernick has at his proposal, the 49ers are going to need to continue that transition into a passing squad.  Part of that is joining the modern NFL; the 49ers were one of only three teams to not have three-receiver personnel as their leading formation in 2013, per Football Outsiders, joining the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders.

After Boldin and Crabtree, the receiving cabinet was bare for San Francisco.
After Boldin and Crabtree, the receiving cabinet was bare for San Francisco.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The 49ers were the only team to use 11 personnel (that is, one running back, one tight end and three receivers) less than 30 percent of the time, per Football Outsiders. They used 22 personnel more than any other team, 26 percent of the time—that means they only had one receiver on the field.

This is an offensive philosophy that peaked in the 1970s, and the 49ers are the only team still using it. It can be explained somewhat by the absence of talented receivers last year, but it’s an ongoing trend:

San Francisco's Use of "11" Personnel Under Jim Harbaugh
YearPercentageTop Receivers
201122%Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Ted Ginn
201220%Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham
201321%Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams
Football Outsiders

To put those numbers in perspective, 11 personnel was used leaguewide 40.4 percent of the time in 2011, 45.7 percent of the time in 2012 and 51.2 percent of the time in 2013, according to Football Outsiders.  Those are just the averages, and the 49ers aren’t even reaching half of those numbers.

That’s not to say the 49ers should go three-wide simply because everyone else is doing it; finding formations to keep Kyle Wiliams off the field seems like a fairly solid offensive strategy.

At a certain point, however, if the 49ers are going to fully get good value out of Kaepernick’s contract, they’re going to have to open up the offense.  They have the personnel now to run three-wide sets without worrying about putting subpar players on the field.

How will Greg Roman deploy his talent in 2014?
How will Greg Roman deploy his talent in 2014?Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

With Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Davis, the 49ers have five average or better receiving options to deploy in 2014.  Add in Frank Gore and Bruce Miller and you have seven talented players for five skill-position spots, and that’s before considering the potential of players such as Carlos Hyde or Bruce Ellington, to name just two.

There is just too much talent on this squad not to expand into three-receiver sets, at least some of the time.  They don’t necessarily need to hit that 51.2 percent marker set by the league last season, but continuing to use it only a fifth of the time when it’s been the league’s most efficient formation, per Football Outsiders, is not getting the most out of their potential.

Will the 49ers' group of talented receivers come close to doing what the 2012 Patriots did?  No, that seems highly unlikely, just based on the past philosophy of Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, as well as the quality of San Francisco’s defense.

However, a lack of significant improvement in passing numbers in 2014 could only be considered a failure of creativity and execution.  The 49ers have all the pieces in places to form a significantly improved passing offense.  It only remains to be seen if they can put it all together in practice.


Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.