The big news out of the 49ers training camp, at the team facilities in Santa Clara, is that Vernon Davis has been getting significant reps at wide receiver. This is clearly a response to the injuries to Crabtree and Manningham. Coach Harbaugh has slid Vernon Davis to receiver to increase the depth on the team, and surround Kaepernick with more offensive weapons out wide. While Vernon does not have much experience playing outside, only 16 targets as a wide receiver last year with Kaepernick (targeted 14 times at slot, and twice outside), he possesses unique speed for a tight end potentially making his transition much smoother. The shuffling of players, due to injuries, is likely to negatively impact a team, but Vernon's versatility combined with the 49ers' other offensive weapons. could be a nightmare for opposing defenses to cope with.
The main benefit of Vernon playing wide receiver is the increase in match up versatility. With the creative offensive minds of Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, the 49ers should be able to capitalize on the ability to take advantage of defense's alignments when Vernon is in the game. Due to Vernon ability to play in-line, slot, out wide and even some H-back the 49ers have endless formations available with the same personnel.
For instance, say, the 49ers enter the huddle with their 5 offensive linemen, Kaep, Gore, Vernon, McDonald, Boldin and Miller. On the surface, it seems like a 22 personnel, two tight ends and two backs, but in reality, it could be a 3 wide set with Vernon outside and McDonald in the slot, somewhere he frequently played in college; or even a jumbo package with Boldin acting as a pseudo third tight end. Let's say the defense lines up in base, 4-3 or 3-4, we could easily shift McDonald out wide and isolate him against a linebacker on a quick slant. If they are in nickle, we make them pay by overpowering them with Vernon, McDonald and Boldin. The possibilities are endless and that is just with that lineup. What if we bring in James for Miller? We could be running a power read option with James and Gore or going 4 wide with James and McDonald in the slots. Ultimately, the reason why this could be so effective is that the 49ers can changes offensive directions from one play to the next without making a substitution therefore not allowing the defense to substitute accordingly.
While it's not realistic to expect the 49ers to make drastic formation switches with the same personnel often, it's something that can be pulled out to take advantage an a particularly weak defensive player, think poor covering linebackers or smaller cornerbacks, and gives defenses another thing to have to plan for.
There are still obvious cons to this move, particularly in the loss of Vernon as an inline tight end. With a ridiculous combination of speed and power, Vernon Davis has become one of the best blocking and deep threat tight ends. With him out wide, the duty of blocking from the inline falls on Celek, a good blocker but limited in pass catching, or McDonald, a rookie with little experience in blocking, limiting the options and giving defenses a pretty clear picture of our play calling. On top of that, by replacing Crabtree with Vernon, McDonald and Celek would see more playing action; this could decrease the team's speed, something they are already lacking it. With no one to take the top of the defense, teams might be able to pack the box against the 49ers forcing them to run into 8 man fronts without having to worry about getting beaten over the top. Although these cons could limit the offense, as a 49ers fan, I smile at the thought of Greg Roman being given a full off-season to plan how to attack defenses with the versatile lineups made possible by Vernon's move inside.
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