SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Vernon Davis refers to himself as “just a piece of the puzzle” when it comes to the San Francisco 49ers’ offense.
Reality suggests he’s selling himself a bit short.
With leading receiver Michael Crabtree sidelined at least until November due to a torn Achilles tendon, all signs point toward the eighth-year tight end becoming a primary target for quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Perhaps that’s why Davis has spent some of training camp lining up at wide receiver.
His speed and athleticism make him a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators, and it makes sense for the 49ers to get creative in finding ways to get him the ball.
“I’m willing to step up and do whatever they ask me to do,” Davis said Sunday. “They’ve been having me line up at wide receiver, pretty much all over the place. It’s a good thing that I get the opportunity to work with those guys because it not only helps me at the wide receiver position, it also helps me at the tight end position. My feet get quicker, my route-running is better.”
49ers coach Jim Harbaugh did not address the prospect of Davis playing receiver, but he said he likes what he’s seen from his tight end so far in camp.
“I see a lot of improvement, in his ability as a football player, his route-running,” Harbaugh said. “He looks really good, in the prime of his career.”
Davis’ 2012 regular season stats — 41 catches, 548 yards, five touchdowns — were disappointing compared to past seasons. But he busted out under the spotlight of the postseason.
Davis had five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown in the NFC championship game win at Atlanta. He hauled in six catches for 104 yards in a losing effort against Baltimore in the Super Bowl.
The difference, he said, was the chemistry he began developing with Kaepernick, who took the quarterback job from Alex Smith with six games left in the regular season.
Davis, 29, talked openly last season about him and Kaepernick not being on the same page in games.
What changed in the playoffs?
“Experience,” Davis explained simply. “You saw Colin developing into a great quarterback, and you saw the rest of the guys, including myself, following him and figuring him out. Getting the timing down, just figuring him out as a person and a quarterback.”
With Crabtree out, it stands to reason that opponents will key on stopping Davis. That’s why it’s important for new No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin and whoever starts opposite him to develop as threats in the passing game.
But perhaps Davis himself will split out wide on occasion.
He said he played some receiver in high school and hoped to play there once he got to the University of Maryland, but his head coach said, “You’ll be too big,” Davis remembers.
“I actually did get bigger. I got up to 248 pounds, and by the time I left Maryland, I was 255.”
Davis, who is 6-foot-3, says his weight has remained 245 for the past four years. He’s faster than most NFL tight ends, and he doesn’t think playing receiver would be a huge adjustment.
“I mean, it’s just like tight end,” he said. “You’re just running routes.”
And if playing out of position on occasion is what it takes to get the 49ers over the hump to win a Super Bowl, Davis says he’s all for it. He took inspiration from Atlanta Falcons star tight end Tony Gonzalez’s decision to postpone retirement and come back for another season at age 37.
“This is a guy who has nothing to prove,” Davis said. “He’s already (deserving) of the Hall of Fame, he’s broken all the records. This tells me how important it is to him to get a ring.
“I don’t play for the Pro Bowl, I don’t play for statistics. Maybe in my younger days I played for statistics. It’s all about that ring.”
Notes: Harbaugh said he sympathized with Tarell Brown after learning the cornerback lost out on $2 million, and that he believes “there’s a solution there.” Harbaugh said team officials — not just Brown’s agent — were not aware of the contract clause that obligated Brown to attend voluntary offseason workouts to receive all of his money. “Unfortunately, nobody caught it,” Harbaugh said. “That’s real torpedo that nobody really wanted to see happen. Now let’s get the solution and solve the problem.” The coach added that he’d like to be involved in discussions to help remedy the situation, but did not get into specifics.