The 49ers lost Michael Crabtree for most of the 2013 season when he ripped apart his Achilles while running around in shorts. That will suck for so many obvious reasons, most notably his absurd yards after the catch. Of Crabtree’s 1,105 overall receiving yards this past season, 536 of them came after he caught a football.
But there’s a more specific reason for spirit crushing following Crabtree’s tear: his relationship with Colin Kaepernick, which is second only to the sophomore quarterback’s undying affection for giant turtles. Including the playoffs, Kaepernick started 10 games for the 49ers in 2012, and Crabtree was often the subject of his throwing gaze. He averaged 102.3 receiving yards per game while scoring nine of his 12 touchdowns with Kaep as his quarterback.
The potential for haunting nothingness goes far beyond that surface layer, though, and please avert your eyes if you don’t want this quick refresher of the numbing numers we posted in the hours after Crabtree’s injury:
In the playoffs Kaepernick had a QB rating of 139.7 when throwing at Crabtree.
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 22, 2013
Colin Kaepernick targeted Michael Crabtree 27 times on 3rd down and 13 times in the red zone, both more than 3x as much as the next guy.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 22, 2013
— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) May 22, 2013
Alright then, so here’s what’s becoming clear: Kaepernick needs to not only find a new favorite target, but also a guy who can stretch the field vertically while vacuuming up those high volume throws. Enter Vernon Davis…maybe.
As is often the case in these dark June days, we’re going through an exercise of both elimination and educated speculation here, and we’re basing both of those things on only a small slice of information. This is the world we’re living in for the next six weeks or so, god help us all.
Here’s the first part. As you can see by the target numbers, Crabtree was the 49ers’ most frequently used deep option in 2012. Anquan Boldin was brought in through a trade with Baltimore, but speed and field stretching isn’t his game. That’s especially true now as he enters his age 33 season. His game is one that’s based on physicality, and beating defensive backs where only the toughest bros play: the middle of the field. That’s why during the 49ers’ minicamp he was used primarily as a slot receiver.
What’s intriguing, though, is another observation from minicamp that comes to us through the eyes and pencil pushing of Grant Cohn from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. During the camp, Davis participated exclusively with the wide receivers, not the tight ends.
Cohn plays the educated speculation game himself by adding that despite his role as a fine blocking tight end, Davis could be the best option out wide. Others like A.J. Jenkins and Richardo Lockette lack experience, while Mario Manningham is still recovering from ACL and PCL surgery.
This could potentially add another threatening element to Davis’ game, who — like now former 49er Delanie walker — was used creatively by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, often lining up the slot, and then shifting to the backfield in addition to being featured in a more traditional in-line role. What this also could mean for fantasy fiends is, at worst, the return of a much more consistent Davis.
The demise and then rise of Davis in 2012 has been well documented. But to review, there were three stages that cycled between grief and elation:
- Over the first eight weeks with Alex Smith as his quarterback, he scored four of his five regular-season touchdowns, while averaging 46.8 receiving yards per game. However, that stretch included a Week 7 win over Seattle in which Davis wasn’t even targeted.
- Then after a fleeting and teasing resurgence (83 yards in Week 11), Davis was targeted only 12 times over San Fran’s final six games, which included another catch-less week. During that run of woe his per game receiving average fell to 10.2. That’s the stuff of vomit.
- Then suddenly during the playoffs, he hath risen. Sure, he had only a single catch during the divisional round, but it was a 44 yarder. Then Davis logged a combined 210 yards during the conference championship and Super Bowl. Yes, his totals in both of those games were 40 yards better than his cumulative total between weeks 12 and 17.
With even more versatility and usage possibly added to his game now, the chances of the more consistent Davis reemerging and blessing our lives increase. Jenkins will still see his targets out wide, while rookies Vance McDonald and Quinton Patton will see their share too as slot options. Even in Crabtree’s absence, the 49ers don’t lack depth among Kaepernick’s targets.
But they do lack reliable and experienced depth, so if Davis can use his 4.38 40-yard dash speed early and bust up some DBs, it’s not hard to foresee more snaps and more looks out wide.
He won’t reach Jared Cook status, because few do since he’s a science experiment who lined up at wide receiver on 70 percent of his snaps in 2012, though his job title still said “tight end”. But seeing Davis lined up either in the slot or out wide on about 50 percent of his snaps in Crabtree’s absence could happen, and that will be a highly profitable reality for his fantasy owners, with his chunk yardage rising significantly.