≡ Menu

Vernon Davis as Art Monk

After the voters did not select Shannon Sharpe as part of the 2009 Hall of Fame Class, I wrote this post comparing Sharpe to Art Monk. While many viewed Sharpe as a receiver playing tight end, I noted that the Redskins used Monk not just as a wide receiver, but as an H-Back and as a tight end. My friend and football historian Sean Lahman once wrote this about Monk:

Even though Monk lined up as a wide receiver, his role was really more like that of a tight end. He used his physicality to catch passes. He went inside and over the middle most of the time. He was asked to block a lot. All of those things make him a different creature than the typical speed receiver…. His 940 career catches put him in the middle of a logjam of receivers, but he’d stand out among tight ends. His yards per catch look a lot better in that context as well.

I haven’t heard anyone else suggesting that we consider Monk as a hybrid tight end, but coach Joe Gibbs hinted at it in an interview with Washington sportswriter Gary Fitzgerald:

“What has hurt Art — and I believe should actually boost his credentials — is that we asked him to block a lot,” Gibbs said. “He was the inside portion of pass protection and we put him in instead of a big tight end or running back. He was a very tough, physical, big guy.”

With Michael Crabtree likely to miss most if not all of the 2013 season due to a torn Achilles, the 49ers may consider moving Vernon Davis from tight end to wide receiver. The most likely explanations for Davis playing exclusively at wide receiver in mini-camp are (a) he doesn’t need more practice at tight end while his route-running could probably use some refining, (b) the 49ers have several young tight ends who could benefit from more reps in mini-camp, and (c) the wide receiver group is currently depleted, and it’s June, so why not try something outside the box?

Davis has off-the-charts athleticism, so I think he could probably handle wide receiver duties. Davis is a very good blocking tight end: he would be an absurdly good blocking wide receiver. Even if for no other reason than his size (250 pounds), Davis is a much more effective blocker than say, Hines Ward (205 pounds) or Art Monk ever were.

Of course, Davis is faster than Ward and Monk were, too. It’s not easy finding 40-yard dash times from 1998, but this says Ward ran the 40 in 4.55 seconds; Davis ran the 40 in 4.38 seconds. Want to compare Davis to another wide receiver? Pro Football Focus ranked Reggie Wayne as its top blocking wide receiver in 2012; Wayne, at 198 pounds, ran an unofficial 4.45 40, while his 36 inch vertical leap checks in as half a foot shorter than what Davis posted as the combine.

Davis practices for a career change.

Davis practices for a career change.

In the playoffs, Davis averaged 21.2 yards per catch, and his average reception came 13.8 yards downfield. He’s more than capable of being a deep threat, and is arguably the team’s best vertical weapon with or without a healthy Crabtree. But does that mean moving him to wide receiver is the smart thing to do?

Let’s start with the basics: the position we label a player is meaningless. Calling Davis a wide receiver or a tight end has no impact on the 49ers success: he can be called a wide receiver and play like a tight end, or be called a tight end and play like a wide receiver (some players are even called quarterbacks but throw like tight ends). Jimmy Graham isn’t any more or less valuable depending on what position the Saints label him, and the same is true for Davis. But let’s start by taking a look at how the 49ers offense operated last year.

In 2012, the most common formation San Francisco used was 22 personnel1, which placed two running backs and two tight ends on the field 26.9% of the time. That would mean Frank Gore and Bruce Miller in the backfield, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker at tight end, and either Michael Crabtree or Randy Moss split out wide. The 49ers used 21 personnel — generally taking Walker off the field and having two out of Crabtree, Moss, and Manningham out wide — an additional 21 percent of the time.

San Francisco used two or more tight ends on 55% of all snaps last year. And, according to Football Outsiders, a fullback (Miller) was on the field in 45% of snaps. The team averaged just 1.8 wide receivers on the field per snap in 2012. None of this is too surprising, but it’s always good to quantify what we all know: San Francisco’s offense is not very dependent on its wide receivers.

The 49ers have some fast players in the backfield (Colin Kaepernick, LaMichael James), but Davis might have been the fastest wide receiver on the team last year had San Francisco labeled him as such. The team traded for Anquan Boldin in March, and he’ll be asked to replace much of Michael Crabtree’s production. Many say that Boldin is best suited for the slot, which doesn’t work so well for a team that rarely features three wide receivers. Boldin lined up in the slot on 62.2% of his routes last year, according to Pro Football Focus. However, only 29 of his 65 receptions and 429 of his 921 receiving yards came when he was in the slot. So I’m not sure the narrative is completely accurate on that front.

The Ravens offense frequently used Dennis Pitta, Ray Rice, Ed Dickson and Vonta Leach, so it’s not like Baltimore was running three-wide receiver sets frequently, either. The Ravens base formation was 21 personnel (43.9%), with Rice, Leach, Pitta, Boldin, and Torrey Smith the typical lineup. The team only used three wide receivers on 26% of all snaps, so it’s not as though Boldin was only playing inside. It made sense for him to move there in obvious passing downs, as Smith and Jacoby Jones work best as outside receivers.

Still, one could see the 49ers moving Davis to the outside on the rare occasion when San Francisco has three-wide receiver sets in 2013. A “position switch” need not be as binary as it sounds. Davis doesn’t have to go from 100% tight end to 100% wide receiver, because in fact, few players meed that definition. And in fact, it probably makes more sense to break things into three groups: tight ends, slot receivers, and outside wide receivers.

I asked Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus for some information on Davis’ production the past two seasons, and as usual, Jahnke was immensely helpful. I don’t like Yards per Target as a metric, but I do find Yards Per Route Run to be useful. YPRR is exactly what it sounds like: it’s an efficiency statistic for receivers.

According to Jahnke, Davis averaged 1.73 YPRR on 311 routes as a tight end in 2012, compared to just 1.32 YPRR on 200 routes as a wide receiver (including playoffs).2 But that’s hardly the end of the story. In 2011, Davis averaged was 1.55 YPRR on 356 routes as a tight end and a whopping 3.32 YPRR on 160 routes as a wide receiver. Davis had several huge gains while lined up as a wide receiver in the final three weeks of 2011: In week 17 and the two playoff games, Davis averaged 1.76 YPRR on 58 TE routes at and 7.51 on 41 WR routes. For what it’s worth, Jahnke noted that ignoring those games brings Davis’ 2011 averages to 1.51 YPRR on 298 TE routes and 1.87 YPRR on WR 119 routes.

There are some other reasons why Davis’ 2012 numbers look “better” at tight end. Only 18% of Davis’ routes as a tight end came on third down, compared to 46% of his routes at wide receiver. Since YPRR generally drops on third down3 — there are usually more other routerunners and the defense is more likely to expect the pass — Davis’ raw differentials between his time at tight end and at wide receiver aren’t as significant as you might think.

Based on his 2011 performance and the potential Simpson’s Paradox issues with the splits, I think Davis would be very competent as a wide receiver. But again, just what is a wide receiver, anyway?

Jahnke noted that of Davis’ 200 pass routes (including the postseason) at wide receiver, only 39 of them came with him on the outside. To be fair, this is how most tight ends operate: 39 routes run out wide put Davis at #14 for all tight ends, while his 161 routes in the slot was only 20th among tight ends. Davis was lined up in the slot on 31% of his total routes last year, so if he “switches” to wide receiver and then lines up in the slot, I don’t think that will mean very much.

For the 49ers to actually implement a position switch, Davis will have to play on the outside. He actually averaged more YPRR on the outside (1.69) than in the slot (1.23), so there’s reason to believe he can do well on the edge. The real question is how does this help the 49ers?

With an outstanding offensive line, the read option at their disposal, and Kaepernick’s mastery of the Pistol, the running game is going to excel. In 2012, the team finished 1st in Expected Points Added in the running game, and Kaepernick’s presence essentially takes away one of the defenders. If that’s someone that Davis doesn’t need to block, then perhaps the team can afford to put him on the outside.

Of course, with Delanie Walker now in Tennessee, that could leave the team short-handed at tight end. In the draft, the 49ers selected Rice tight end Vance McDonald, a great athlete who is more slot receiver/chess piece than in-line blocker. The 49ers also have undrafted free agents Garrett Celek, and MarQueis Gray, although neither is expected to contribute much.

My guess is that if the 49ers do want to utilize Davis on the outside, the goal would be to have Boldin in the slot, A.J. Jenkins/Manningham/Kyle Williams on the other side of the field, and Gore (or LaMichael James) and Bruce Miller in the backfield. While Jenkins/Manningham/Williams may not be much, I don’t think moving Davis to wide receiver would be done (1) just to get Vance McDonald on the field more (especially since he could be the one playing wide receiver), or (2) to have Boldin line up as the other outside wide receiver. The intent would have to be to use more three wide receiver sets.

Given San Francisco’s nature as a run-heavy team, that might surprise you, but it’s generally easier to run out of three-wide receiver sets, anyway. If moving Davis to the outside forces teams to go to their nickel sets, and Kaepernick can freeze another linebacker, that’s math the 49ers powerful offensive line would like. Spreading the field might also help Kaepernick as a passer, as it might make it a little more difficult for the defense to tip their hand pre-snap.

Still, these are mostly just June musings. We’ll have to wait a few months to see what the 49ers actually do. Historically, it wasn’t uncommon for players to play both tight end and wide receiver. Former Jets Rich Caster and Jerome Barkum both entered the league as wide receivers but were playing tight end in the early ’80s. Jerry Smith, Dave Parks, Gary Ballman, Carroll Dale, Dave Kocourek, Preston Carpenter, Frank Clarke, and Bobby Walston all played both positions in the ’60s and/or ’70s. Pete Retzlaff had a great career with the Eagles, spending four years at tight end and four at wide receiver. If Davis is able to successfully make such a transition — even if it’s as a hybrid tight end/slot receiver/outside receiver — it would just be another way in which Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers are old school.

Previous “Random Perspective On” Articles:
AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New York Jets
AFC North: Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers
AFC South: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans
AFC West: Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins
NFC North: Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings
NFC South: Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams

  1. All personnel information comes courtesy of NFLGSIS []
  2. Jahnke also noted that after checking the splits with Alex Smith and Colin Kapernick, there was very little difference (1.75 and 1.33 with Smith, 1.70 and 1.32 with Kaepernick). []
  3. For a player lined up as a wide receiver or tight end, YPRR drops from 1.65 on 1st down to 1.46 on 2nd to 1.37 on 3rd. []