When the San Francisco 49ers signed Brandon Lloyd to a one-year deal back in April, it appeared to be just another case of Trent Baalke continuing a four-year trend of taking a flyer on a veteran receiver on a one-year deal. With Vernon Davis now in a contract dispute, the signing of Lloyd takes on greater significance.
Davis was one of the most explosive receiving threats in the NFL in 2013, finishing behind only DeSean Jackson and A.J. Green in touchdown receptions on throws of 20 yards or more. In addition, the 49ers’ offense became extremely pedestrian with Davis out of the lineup during losses to the Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers. It should come as no surprise that those two games were also the worst outings for Colin Kaepernick so far in his career.
Lloyd gives the 49ers a legitimate deep threat to replace Davis should his contract holdout spill into the regular season. Despite not playing in 2013, Lloyd has been targeted on passes of 20 or more yards 30 more times than any other wide receiver on the 49ers roster.
Lloyd’s impact could be felt in other areas as well.
There have been repeated whispers this offseason about how the 49ers would be looking to open up their offense more in 2014. Since Jim Harbaugh took over as the head coach, his team has ranked near the bottom of the league when it comes to the use of three wide receivers, or 11 personnel. This move could go a long way in helping that become a reality.
In 2012, Lloyd ran over 90 percent of his pass routes after lining up outside. This number is significant.
A key piece missing from the 49ers’ offense in 2013 was the joker position. This is a position that requires the player to be a cross between a tight end and receiver. In 2011 and 2012 this role was handled by Delanie Walker. In 2013 the 49ers tried to utilize Bruce Miller in this role with mixed results.
Walker had averaged 20 receptions per season, 13.6 yards per reception and three touchdowns in the role under Harbaugh. With Miller taking the bulk of those plays in 2013, the production dropped. While Miller brought in more receptions with 25, the yards per reception dropped to only 9.7 and zero touchdowns.
The reason that Lloyd lining up outside for such a high percentage of snaps is significant is that it could allow the 49ers to move Anquan Boldin into the joker role when they go into 11 personnel. Boldin is a physical receiver who is built very similar to Walker. By lining him up inside, the 49ers should be able to create mismatches with Boldin against the No. 3 cornerback, a safety or linebacker. This should allow them to increase the productivity from the joker in the passing game.
Don’t expect the 49ers to go crazy with the passing game. Remember, this is a team that has run the ball more than they’ve passed in each of the last three seasons.
This is again where the move to bring in Lloyd makes sense. According to PFF, Lloyd finished the 2012 season with the New England Patriots having a run blocking grade of +3.9. That is a big piece of the puzzle for making the move to more 11 personnel fit with the personality of the 49ers. They must show the ability to stay somewhat balanced when moving into this grouping.
In 2013, the 49ers were not able to do that. When lining up in 11 personnel, they threw the ball 81 percent of the time according to PFF. That type of percentage tips your hand to the defense and is something the 49ers must improve on this season.
The last piece to this puzzle is Marcus Lattimore and Carlos Hyde. While Frank Gore has often struggled running out of the gun, Lattimore seems to be the opposite. When looking at highlights of Lattimore at South Carolina and Hyde at Ohio State, the one thing that jumped off the screen is their ability to run with power out out of the shotgun, often from 11 personnel while also being a solid target out of the backfield in the passing game.
Though there is a still a little over a month to go before training camp opens in August, this move may turn out to be the best Baalke makes this offseason.
Jack Hammer is a San Francisco 49ers writer at Rantsports.com, follow him on Twitter@JackHammerNFL.