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When you take a look at where he was and how far he's come, it's no surprise that Vernon Davis has become one of the most respected players in the NFL.
It was almost five years ago now that Davis was sent back to the locker room by then coach Mike Singletary during a loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The ensuing press conference led to Singletary's comical "I want winners" tirade but the outcome of that situation was no laughing matter for Davis. It was around that time Vernon started to change as a teammate. The big picture became more clear and he eventually took on more of a leadership role with the team. Recently, Davis has become one of the core members of a 49ers team that may be the most talented in the league. In 2013, entering his eighth season, Davis may be more important to the Niners than ever.
With Michael Crabtree out of the picture for the foreseeable future, the 49ers have an aging Anquan Boldin and a myriad of question marks on the outside. The team needs another consistent threat in the passing game and there may be no better option than Davis. But to look at where Davis needs to go, we have to look at where he's been under the Jim Harbaugh regime.
In 2011, Davis was solid but unspectacular during most of the regular season. The 49ers offense had very little time to gel because of the lockout and was built on running the football and a safe passing game behind quarterback Alex Smith. Davis caught 67 balls for 792 yards and 6 touchdowns. Towards the end of the season though, Davis appeared to be catching on to the new scheme. He hauled in 18 passes for 244 yards and a score over the last three games. In the playoffs, Davis exploded for 10 receptions, 292 yards and four scores in two games. His divisional round performance in a victory against the Saints will go down in 49ers lore as one of the most clutch games in the histroy of the franchise.
The end of the 2011 season brought on big expectations for 2012. With a full offseason in the new system, big things were expected from Davis. The results weren't as good as hoped. Davis' 41 receptions was the third lowest total in his career. After a strong first game with Colin Kaepernick, Davis only had 6 catches for 61 yards and no touchdowns over his last six games. People started to wonder if Davis and Kaepernick were on the same page on what the future would hold. Those questions were answered in the post season as Davis exploded again. In the three game run through the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens, Davis was a nightmare for defenses as he totaled 254 yards and a touchdown over three games. Expectations are sky high again, but will the results mirror the playoffs or the end of the regular season?
One theory on Davis' lack of regular season production is how the 49ers have used him in the game plan. He is an excellent blocker so, at times, it benefits the team for him to stay in and block while other players are targeted. Another scenario involves Davis being a decoy. The tight ends size and speed command the attention from any defense and while the focus is on Davis, it allows other players to flourish.
Davis as a decoy may not be a luxury the 49ers can afford this season. They need production from their pass catchers and can't let one of their most talented options waste away as the ball goes in a different direction. Early reports out of mini camp are that Davis has been practicing with the wide receivers. That doesn't mean that Davis will abondon his tight end position and split out wide exclusively, but it gives the indication that the team plans to use him in different formations all over the field. That makes sense considering Davis' ability to stretch the field and be a vertical threat.
During 2009-2010, Davis led NFL tight ends in receptions, targets, and yards in passing plays over 20 yards. While his production in this category slipped in the 2011-2012 regular season, he was dominant in the playoffs. Over Davis' five playoff games, he has 7 receptions (on 10 targets) for 262 yards and two touchdowns on passes over 20 yards.
Looking at Davis' overall production, he has 108 receptions for 1340 yards and 11 touchdowns over 32 regular season games in 2011-2012. Thats 3.3 receptions for 41.8 yards per game. In the playoffs, Davis has 22 catches for 546 yards and five touchdowns in five games. That's an average of 4.4 catches for 109 yards a game.
Davis is averaging only about one additional catch a game in the playoffs, but gaining over 68 yards more. One reason for that is the percentage of targets. Davis was targeted over 20 yards 27 times in the 2011-2012 regular season. He had 12 receptions (44% completion rate) and 364 yards. Over 32 games, he was targeted 0.8 times per contest over 20 yards. In the playoffs, Davis was targeted 10 times in five games and caught seven of those passes (70 % completion rate) which means he was targeted an average of twice a game.
Given these numbers, it would be beneficial to the 49ers to use Davis in a similar role throughout a 16 game season as they did in the playoffs. Whether it is in the slot, out of the box or split outside, Davis' vertical threat has to be accounted for. One scenario where Davis (or the 49ers use of him) must improve in on third downs. In 2012, Davis caught 26 passes that produced a first down, however, only four of those came on third down. Only one of those four catches accounted for more than seven yards.
A reason for minimal third down production could be because of Davis' lack of targets when in the slot. On 161 routes run from the slot in 2012, Davis was only targeted 19 times. He caught 12 of those passes (63 %) for 198 yards. These numbers show Davis was productive when targeted in the slot, but was rarely an option (targeted 11% of the time) when aligned there. A big reason for that could be because of Crabtree's effectiveness on third downs. With Crabtree out, third down production is another reason the team will need to look more in Davis' way.
If there was ever a year to expect big things from Davis, 2013 is that time. The 49ers boast one of the most imaginative coaching staffs in the NFL and, with limited options on the outside, they should put Davis in positions to succeed on a consistent basis. Fans have seen Davis dominate over short stretches, this could be the season Davis cements his place as the NFL's dominant tight end.