NFC West: Benjamin Watson

The target percentages posted earlier are open to interpretation. Drop percentages are a little more straightforward.

Six current or former NFC West players ranked among the NFL's top 20 qualifying wide receivers and tight ends last season in lowest drop percentage, defined as drops divided by targets.

Percy Harvin and Mario Manningham went without a drop. Neither played a full season, but each had enough targets to qualify for inclusion in the chart below.

You might recall some of these players suffering more drops than we've listed in the chart. ESPN's standard for drops could be stricter than the ones our uncles apply when deciding which objects to throw at the television following frustrating plays. Our game charters count drops as "incomplete passes where the receiver SHOULD have caught the pass with ORDINARY effort" and only when the receiver is "100 percent at fault" for the incompletion.

The first chart shows where NFC West teams' wide receivers and tight ends ranked in the league in drop rate. The Seattle Seahawks ranked third. However, their running backs ranked only 29th in drop rate (9.3 percent), one spot ahead of running backs for the San Francisco 49ers (9.4 percent). The Arizona Cardinals' backs were fourth at 2.7 percent. The totals for running backs affected the overall team percentages, which we can check out separately another time.

I've singled out wide receivers and tight ends because we've been looking at players from those positions while discussing potential changes to the 49ers following Michael Crabtree's recent injury. Getting Manningham back to health could help the 49ers.

Steve from Palisades Park, N.J., used the most recent NFC West chat to say the San Francisco 49ers should add to their receiving corps "a big guy who can go up and get jump balls" -- perhaps someone such as Ramses Barden.

"The 49ers have Vernon Davis," I replied. "He should be able to do those things."

Paul from San Francisco wasn't having it.

"Davis has never been that guy," Paul wrote to the NFC West mailbag. "Have you ever noticed that he's always jumping in the air when he catches a pass? Not the same as the high, contested end zone passes mentioned above.

"It's like he can't stay on his feet, catch a ball, and continue up the field without breaking stride. He needs his body to remain relatively stationary (in the air) while he concentrates on the ball because he can't do too many things at once while focusing on the ball.

"Watch the tape, you'll see!"

I've seen Davis catch touchdowns passes in stride. It's tough to quantify passes caught high in the air, away from the body and the like. With Davis, the big plays probably overshadow the routine ones in our minds. As the chart shows, Davis has averaged 18.9 yards per touchdown reception over the past five seasons, second only to Seattle's Zach Miller among qualifying tight ends.

Davis has 33 touchdown receptions over the past five seasons. Davis was already in the end zone when he caught 19 of them.

I did think there were times last season when Davis should have factored more prominently in the red zone.

Forty NFL tight ends ran at least 20 pass routes in the red zone last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 40 players, Davis ranked 35th in percentage of targets per route (14.8). The average was 24.2 percent for the others and more than 30 percent for Clay Harbor, Heath Miller, Rob Gronkowski, Owen Daniels, Aaron Hernandez, Joel Dreessen, Tony Moeaki, Anthony Fasano and Benjamin Watson.

Davis' average was around 20 percent over the previous four seasons. The 49ers' offense is changing. Michael Crabtree is playing a more prominent role in the receiving game. That has affected Davis. It isn't necessarily bad for the team, either.

Let's count this as an initial look into a subject that could use additional exploration.

2011 49ers Week 8: Five observations

November, 1, 2011
Five things I noticed while watching the San Francisco 49ers' 20-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns in Week 8:
  • The 49ers had plans against pressure. Alex Smith is the only quarterback in the NFL with no interceptions and more than four touchdown passes against five or more pass-rushers. He is the only quarterback with no interceptions and more than two touchdown passes when opponents pressure with at least one defensive back. I can see why. The 49ers protected beautifully when Smith found Vernon Davis for a 19-yard gain and Michael Crabtree for a 41-yarder, both on third-and-9 plays against five-man pressure. Smith had a quick outlet against five-man pressure on a third-and-6 play (he found Braylon Edwards for a first down). And when the Browns rushed safety Usama Young near the goal line, Smith reacted quickly, finding Crabtree for a 2-yard touchdown with Young bearing down and leaping in the quarterback's face.
  • Joe Thomas met expectations. The Browns' Pro Bowl left tackle encountered very little trouble against the 49ers' talented defensive linemen and outside linebackers. Justin Smith nearly got around Thomas in a two-minute situation before halftime. Aldon Smith redirected the running back after slipping past Thomas to the inside. That was about it. On one play, Colt McCoy found Benjamin Watson for a 29-yard gain after Thomas shoved Parys Haralson backward hard enough for Haralson to knock down Justin Smith, removing both men from the play. Aldon Smith got his sack on an inside rush, not working against Thomas.
  • Free safety Dashon Goldson got caught letting up. Josh Cribbs beat 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown for a touchdown catch up the left sideline. It's tough to know whether Goldson should have arrived earlier to help, but it's clear Goldson should have run through the whistle on this one. He let up when it appeared either Brown was going to make the tackle or Cribbs was on his way out of bounds. Goldson accelerated when he realized Cribbs had broken free, but by then it was too late. Cribbs ran the remaining 15 yards to the end zone.
  • Alex Smith's running is OK, to a point. The 49ers called multiple designed runs for their quarterback. A shotgun run to the perimeter behind tackle Joe Staley worked near the goal line. Smith took a big hit on another outside run when the 49ers led 17-3 early in the fourth quarter. There's a fine line between outsmarting opponents and risking quarterback injury without good reason. Jim Harbaugh might think he can win with Colin Kaepernick, but there's no need to find out. Seattle lost Tarvaris Jackson to a pectoral injury on a designed run.
  • Patrick Willis the pass-rusher found the QB. Willis finished last season with six sacks, a career high. Expectations surged when new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said he thought pass-rushing was the one area Willis could improve to become an even more dynamic player. The 49ers haven't needed to blitz much this season. Willis went into Week 8 without a sack. He finally got one Sunday. Willis lined up wide to the right and easily overpowered running back Chris Ogbonnaya before taking down McCoy. As I recall, Willis has usually rushed up the middle when pressuring. Perhaps he'll get more pass-rushing chances after making this outside rush work.

This wasn't a perfect performance, but the 49ers were in control all the way. They did more than enough to win the game, rarely taking risks beyond the quarterback rushes.