When training camp opens on July 24, quarterback Colin Kaepernick will enter without an eager backup breathing down his neck, a luxury that you could argue hasn't been afforded to a 49ers starter since before Alex Smith's shoulder injury 2007.
But now that Kaepernick is the man in San Francisco, the third-year signal caller must focus on finding a new No. 1 target in the passing game.
The achilles injury suffered by wide receiver Michael Crabtree has been well documented, and it has been reported that he will be placed on injured reserve with a designated return (h/t CSN Bay Area). After setting career-highs in catches, yards and touchdowns last season, the former first-round pick appeared to be on the verge of a true breakout year as Kaepernick's go-to-guy.
So with Crabtree sidelined indefinitely, the speculation has been endless over who can take over behind the newly-acquired Anquan Boldin at wideout. Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette have all been discussed as potential replacements, and veteran Mario Manningham is still recovering from an ACL tear in Week 16.
In reality, the competition at receiver remains wide open. But as the 49ers and Kaepernick search for a new favorite target, they should look no further than tight end Vernon Davis.
The blogosphere was set abuzz after Davis worked out with the receivers in the team's last minicamp, but the tight end would be better off staying exactly where he is. As Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle notes, the 49ers may have had other intentions with Davis' workout:
"...assuming Davis has made a transition from tight end to wide receiver might not be correct. When quarterback Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith last season, Davis’ receiving numbers plunged. Sticking Davis with the receiver group means he got more opportunities during the off-season with Kaepernick." (Source: SFGate.com)
In this analysis, Lynch is right on the money. It's no secret that Kaepernick and Davis took some time to develop chemistry, despite connecting six times for 83 yards and a score in Kaepernick's first NFL start against the Chicago Bears. In fact, Davis wasn't targeted more than three times in any game for the remainder of the regular season, recording only six catches over the final six games.
However, once the playoffs began, Kaepernick and Davis got rolling. As displayed in the table below, Kap looked to Davis often in the postseason, and the offense was better for it. San Francisco led the league in yards per game and ranked second in points per game over the 2012 playoffs, according to NFL.com.
Now, can Davis be expected to keep up that pace for an entire season, including an average of 21.2 yards per catch? Realistically, no. But it does show the potential, which would force defenses to key in on Davis and create opportunities for the 49ers' young core of wide receivers.
Besides Davis' obvious contributions as a blocker, his presence at tight end maintains a versatility that few teams can match. As high as the 49ers are on rookie TE Vance McDonald, Davis was voted No. 38 in the Top 100 Players of 2013 for a reason, and the hype around his switch to wide receiver should prove to be little more than just that: hype.
If Kaepernick and Davis carry their playoff momentum into the regular season, it would pay huge dividends for the 49ers. While Williams, Manningham and Jenkins take time to heal and develop, Davis can provide Kaepernick with the proven weapon he desperately needs in the wake of Crabtree's injury.
Boldin, while an excellent receiver, is new to the offense and has had little time to develop a rapport with his new quarterback. The reliable veteran will most likely prove to be an excellent addition over time, but he and Kaepernick cannot be expected to find that chemistry overnight.
Davis had been Alex Smith's most reliable target for most of their time together, and Kaepernick could certainly benefit from that kind of relationship. The wide receivers must step up to maintain balance on offense, as was seen in the 2011 NFC Championship Game. But when you have a top-5 tight end in the NFL, it would stand to reason that you should use him appropriately.
All the talk of a switch to receiver will end up forgotten by the time the regular season rolls around, and for good reason. Davis should absolutely be used in the slot on occasion, but that type of versatility is what makes him so valuable as a tight end in the first place.
Last year's playoffs showed that Kaepernick and Davis can form a dangerous tandem in the passing game. With Crabtree suddenly out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Davis should step into that go-to-guy role, and is more than capable of doing so.
Vernon Davis has been that guy it in the past. Why look any further now?
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