49ers' offense, TE threat and room to grow

The New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers run vastly different offenses.

One striking similarity: Both target tight ends a high percentage of the time, and both do so with great efficiency.

2011 Alex Smith Targets

Alex Smith has thrown seven of his 11 touchdown passes to tight ends this season. No regular starting quarterback has thrown a higher percentage of his scoring passes to tight ends this season. Only the Patriots' Tom Brady has thrown a higher percentage of his completed passes (37.4) to tight ends in 2011, according to Doug Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information.

This is mostly good for the 49ers.

Their primary tight ends, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker, are fast, talented players who create matchup problems for opponents. The 49ers should involve both players in the offense. Tight ends in general are big targets, ideal for completing the high-percentage passes San Francisco values as the team minimizes turnovers.

The 49ers could benefit, however, if receivers Michael Crabtree and especially Braylon Edwards eventually put more pressure on defenses down the field.

Yards Per Reception

Edwards, only recently recovered from knee surgery, averaged 17.1 yards per reception with the New York Jets last season. His average is 12.8 yards per catch with the 49ers, well off his career mark (15.7).

Edwards isn't the only one with diminished per-catch numbers for San Francisco. Davis' average has fallen from a career-high 16.3 last season to 11.1, his lowest since the 49ers' historically bad 2007 season. Crabtree's average has fallen from at least 13 yards in his first two seasons to 10.8 in 2011.

Efficiency beats an inconsistent big-play offense, particularly for a 49ers team strong on defense and special teams. It's also possible some players, such as Frank Gore against Kansas City, padded their 2010 per-catch averages in less meaningful situations. But with the 49ers ranking 28th in third-down conversion rate, they could stand to improve in both consistency and big-play production -- a scary thought given that the 49ers are 8-1 anyway.