After 49ers tight end Vernon Davis caught six passes for 83 yards in Colin Kaepernick’s debut as a starting quarterback last season, Davis said he felt as if the “handcuffs” had finally been removed.
Davis, after all, had been a mostly forgotten receiver in San Francisco’s offense up to that point. Though integral as a blocker, his role as the team’s No. 1 go-to guy had been usurped by wideout Michael Crabtree.
Unfortunately for Davis, he soon found himself handcuffed again. Until he was set free in the NFC Championship Game victory over the Atlanta Falcons and the Super Bowl loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Davis became a little-used resource as Crabtree blossomed and other teams paid so much attention to Davis.
Now that the 49ers are exploring options on how to fill the void left by Crabtree’s injury – a torn Achilles’ tendon that will force him to miss all or most of the 2013 season – it could be that Davis again becomes the team’s primary option, as he was in 2009 and 2010 when he led the team in receptions.
Though Davis admitted late last season that he and Kaepernick had yet to develop a bond the way he and Alex Smith had, a full offseason of workouts – and need -- could change that.
“It took some time for me and Alex to get like that,” Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle late last season, explaining the lack of chemistry with Kaepernick. “Alex would overthrow me, he would underthrow me. We had to build that chemistry that he could trust that I’m going in that spot that I needed to be. That’s something that me and Kap don’t have right now, but we’re working on it.”
As evidence, ESPN.com’s NFC West blogger Mike Sando recently put together an interesting story on the targeting rates of Kaepernick once he became the starting quarterback in November.
On third-down plays, Crabtree was Kaepernick’s No. 1 target by far, throwing to him 26 times on 64 routes run (40.6 percent of those plays). By contrast, Davis was targeted just six times in 61 routes run (9.8 percent). And even on first and second downs, Davis was No. 5 on the list of targeted receivers, behind Crabtree, Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and Delanie Walker.
As Sando noted: “The 49ers will need other wide receivers to emerge while Crabtree recovers from surgery. And while Davis will be needed for blocking, the numbers suggest he needs to become a bigger part of the receiving game – whether or not Crabtree is available.”
Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh said last week on radio that he knows someone from a corps of wide receivers – A.J. Jenkins, Ricardo Lockette or rookie Quinton Patton -- will step up to help make up for Crabtree’s absence.
“We’ll put Jenkins, Patton, Ricardo Lockette at the same position and let them compete and emerge,” Harbaugh said on 95.7 The Game. “The good news is that somebody will emerge because they have to.”
Allowing Davis to become a bigger part of the receiving game would help, too.
Replacing Crabtree won’t be easy. His injury creates a big challenge for the 49ers. It may mean several receivers will have to play bigger roles and that Kaepernick will have to be willing to trust in them. The handcuffs will have to come off.