You don’t have to replace the injured Michael Crabtree with a receiver. You only need to replace his production, which is something that Vernon Davis, the starting tight end of the San Francisco 49ers, is capable of doing, if he’s just given the chance to from Jim Harbaugh and the throwing of Colin Kaepernick.
Davis, entering his seventh NFL season, was a sixth overall pick in 2006, but has so far made the Pro Bowl only once. He’s a good blocker, but there have always been more outstanding tight ends than him when it comes to his receiving numbers. He did enjoy Alex Smith’s play calling during his last four years, but the rise of Kaepernick turned him back into someone who mostly blocks or is used as a decoy.
According to Mike Sando, Davis was ranked last from the moment Kaepernick made his first start (week 11) when it came to being targeted on third-down routes, which is quite weird when it comes to talented tight ends, many behind default options for their quarterbacks (Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez come to mind). While Crabtree, who led the 49ers in receiving last season 1105 yards, was targeted on 40.6% of those plays, Davis had his number come up only 9.8% of the time.
The 2009 Pro Bowler caught only six passes on the final six games for the 49ers in the regular season, clearly showing how much Kaepernick himself and Harbaugh’s throwing schemes weren’t involving him. In the first 10 games, Davis caught 35 passes. He began the season with 163 yards and four touchdowns on the first three games.
But each season isn’t anything like the other. The 49ers are going to have to come up with a way to replace Crabtree’s route running and production. Some of it is going to be done by Anquan Boldin who came in via trade or by some of the guys who weren’t too involved last season, like Mario Manningham, also recovering by injury. But a lot of it is going to be about making Vernon Davis a central figure in the passing game once again.
Davis did shine in the playoffs, catching for 210 yards and one touchdown on 11 receptions on the final two games. Both the Ravens and the Falcons did a good job in containing the running of Kaepernick, so he went to his arm, which naturally had to spread the game beyond the route of Crabtree. It nearly was enough to win the Super Bowl. Maybe this season, a more consistent approach in involving Davis will take care of a happier ending.