Last year at this time, Vernon Davis was blowing past 49ers defensive backs and hauling in one deep ball after another.
This year Davis is a no-show for minicamp, giving understudies like Vance McDonald more practice repetitions, and perhaps more significant, giving 49ers offensive coaches a chance to test formations that don’t hinge on one of the best tight ends in the NFL.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Tuesday that after three seasons in San Francisco, the staff decided “it’s time to clean out the garage” when it comes to the team’s playbook.
“We went through everything that we’ve done and really kind of stripped it down to its most basic element, most basic part and really started over at square one,” Roman said. “Because it just felt like it was the right thing to do. So we’ve been spending a lot of time on the very basic elements of what we do, and I think it will reap rewards.”
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What will a revamped 49ers offense look like? Roman wouldn’t divulge details – “because then people might have a clue of what we’re doing,” he said archly – adding only that it will be different.
It’s difficult to see the 49ers veering too far from the ground-and-pound approach that has taken them to three consecutive NFC championship games.
After all, they have one of the league’s best offensive lines, they still have Frank Gore at tailback, and they have drafted hard-nosed running backs in Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde in each of the last two drafts.
On the other hand, the team has a deeper and better group of wide receivers than it’s had since Jim Harbaugh and his staff took over in 2011. And it’s not as if the 49ers possibly could throw the ball any less. They ranked last with 417 pass attempts last season, 264 fewer than the Browns, who led the league in that category.
In March, Harbaugh hinted at using more three-wide receiver sets this season, something other NFL teams have used heavily in their offenses but a formation the 49ers have turned to only about 20 percent of the time in recent years.
With Michael Crabtree healthy, and the addition of veteran wideouts Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, the 49ers certainly would have the firepower to go with three or more receivers if they desired.
“We’ve got some new guys in,” Roman noted. “Brandon Lloyd has been out there every day – done a great job of taking advantage of his opportunities. Stevie Johnson’s another guy. So, we’ll see how it all goes.”
Safety Eric Reid will face plenty of three-receiver formations when the 49ers take on teams like the Saints and Broncos this year. He said he’s also been seeing a lot of the same formations in practice this spring.
“There’s a lot more depth, there’s a lot more bodies out there,” Reid said of the team’s receivers. “I think the coaches are trying to figure out what they like, what plays they like. Like I said, (the receivers) are doing well.”
The 49ers might be forced to pass the ball more.
One of the reasons they could afford to lean on their ground game in recent years is that their defense kept opponents out of the end zone. To start this season, the 49ers will not have one of their top linebackers, injured NaVorro Bowman, while another, pass rusher Aldon Smith, could face a league-imposed suspension.
Roman wouldn’t concede that the 49ers will have to score more points. But he did say the offense will be more flexible.
“Every game, that kind of scenario, those kind of considerations, are taken into account,” he said. “I’ve got all the faith in the world that our defense will continue to play at an extremely high level. But every game, we try to work very well with the defense, special teams.”