Vernon Davis: Occasional Great Player or Franchise Mainstay?

Paul WardContributor IIIJanuary 27, 2012

Vernon Davis, after The Catch, No. 3
Vernon Davis, after The Catch, No. 3Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

As disappointment subsides, the 49ers face intriguing questions about how to take the best of a team that got them to the castle walls and build on that. Yet some answers may be counter-intuitive. 

Among the key players to evaluate are the tight ends, including, of course, Vernon Davis. If you have a short memory, you’d say, ‘’well, but what’s there to talk about?” If Kyle Williams is the name that shall live in infamy from the 2012 playoffs, Vernon Davis is the name that shall always be associated with a great season and, perhaps one day, greatness itself.  

Still, you wonder, will we think of Vernon Davis one day more like Terrell Owens or Dwight Clark? 

But right now the question remains, how good is Vernon Davis, and what should be expected from him next season? 

ProFootballFocus’s overall rating for the 18 tight ends that appeared in the playoffs, through the Conference Championship weekend, put Davis in second place just behind Rob Gronkowski and ahead of Aaron Hernandez—two great players with New England

If you break that overall rating down, Davis lead all TEs in touchdowns and yards after the catch, but he was last in pass blocking, fifth in run blocking and had more penalties than anybody else—two. He was in the top half of the group in percentage of balls caught, going 10-for-13.  

Of course, these numbers are too small to mean much, but certainly you could say he showed gusts of brilliance throughout the playoffs, although against New York he had a disappointing afternoon overall. 

But then put the playoffs aside and look at the rest of the year. For the first 14 weeks of the season, he was subpar, then he had two good performances in the last three games. And indeed, there was a sense of steady improvement approaching the postseason.

ProFootballFocus ranked him 38th for the regular season for tight ends, seven spots below Delanie Walker. 

Now widen the lens a little more and look at Davis's performance in 2010. He started out great, fell down in mid-season and came back slightly at the end.

In 2009, he had a bad season and trended down at the end; in 2008, a bad season but ended on a high. 

So what you have is a player who has progressed certainly and has played at his best most recently.

Clearly, he is not a loser—Mike Singletary's famous rant in 2008 notwithstanding.

But still, he seems unproven. And you have to ask if he is coming into his own, or has he had a quick peak?  Will he ever be consistent? And how much is that uncertainty worth? 

And remember, he’s 28.  

For fun, compare him to Dwight Clark—the gold standard for the 49ers—a two-time pro-bowler and two-time All-Pro.

In nine years, Clark made 506 receptions for 6,750 yards, 48 TDs and 13.3 yards per catch.  

In four years, Davis made 304 receptions for 3,802 yards, 35 TDs and 12.5 yards per catch. 

If Davis is just catching fire, he will pass Clark, all things being equal.  

Incidentally, if yards are the measure, Clark peaked in his second year, 1981.  

And so you’re left with your instinct.

Is Davis on the way up? One answer is that he is on the way up if you believe the 49ers are on the way up, if you believe this season was the beginning of another long run.