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Tuesday, January 8, 2013
The search for Vernon Davis, resolved?

By Mike Sando

About 15 minutes of numbers crunching produced a lead in the case of the San Francisco 49ers' missing tight end.

Vernon Davis isn't really missing, of course. He's playing nearly all the offensive snaps. He's contributing as a blocker. But his receiving numbers had dropped off even before the 49ers changed quarterbacks. Those numbers have gone from bad to worse with Colin Kaepernick taking over for Alex Smith.

The picture changes when we expand it to include the 49ers' other tight end, Delanie Walker.

As the first chart shows, Smith and Kaepernick have very similar numbers when targeting those players. Their attempts and passing yards are nearly identical when targets for Davis and Walker are lumped together.

The second chart suggests Smith fed the ball to Davis much more prolifically than Kaepernick fed the ball to Davis. This fits a familiar narrative. Smith and Davis have long enjoyed a productive relationship. The two had played together since 2006. Davis has defended Smith from critics for years. The two share a bond other players on the team haven't been able to match. It's natural to think Davis' production might slip while he adjusts to a new quarterback.

It's also possible Davis' drop in production might have little to do with either quarterback. It's possible Davis simply started the season quickly for various reasons, and that Smith's numbers reflect this disproportionately because he was the 49ers' quarterback at that time.

Davis' production was slipping before Smith left the lineup. His 58-game streak with at least one reception ended against Seattle, when Smith was the quarterback (an earlier item had this information wrong, and I corrected it). Davis caught five passes for 71 yards over Smith's final three full games as the starter. He then caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in Kaepernick's first start.

The final chart shows Walker's production spiking when Kaepernick was the quarterback. It suggests Kaepernick is targeting tight ends as frequently as Smith targeted tight ends, but that he is simply involving Walker to a degree that Smith did not involve him.

We can compare the numbers safely because Smith and Kaepernick have each improbably attempted 218 passes this season. Smith has targeted tight ends 51 times. Kaepernick has targeted them 45 times. The Walker-Davis distribution rates have changed, but if the 49ers are still getting similar production from the position, what's the problem?

Note that Kaepernick's completion percentage is the same when targeting Walker or Davis. Smith's completion percentage and overall stats drop significantly when targeting Walker.