Vernon Davis Having Flagship Season for the San Francisco 49ers

Dylan DeSimone@@DeSimone80Correspondent IOctober 23, 2013

49ers tight end Vernon Davis has emerged into the NFL's most lethal weapons.
49ers tight end Vernon Davis has emerged into the NFL's most lethal weapons.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Vernon Davis has evolved from a top physical talent on the brink of a career explosion to becoming an absolute menace in the new-era NFL.

For those of you who have been living in outer space, the San Francisco 49ers tight end has been incinerating secondaries in 2013, humiliating defensive players and their coordinators across the league, which are powerless to stop the inevitable.

No, he’s not the tallest, which is a valued trait at his position, but Davis is easily the fastest, strongest tight end in the league today—and it works for him. Power gets him off the line, speed gets him behind the defense, chemistry gets him the football, and boy, does he turn into a fully loaded freight train once he has possession.

Most players flat-out can’t catch him from a trail position, and others don’t want to be standing in front of him when he is barreling down the field.

Once a top-10 draft talent—now touting being veteran savvy, a strong-armed quarterback and a powerhouse team—Davis has really grown into himself. A physical mutant in the likes of Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson or Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, the tight end has finally caught his groove and is living up to his esteemed potential.

Like those two players, he proved he can carry an offense with little else. 

His mental growth from his rookie season to 2010, combined with his on-field maturation from 2011 on has been truly remarkable. Trudging through heavy riptides of adversity, Davis is finally being rewarded for his level-headed direction and commitment to the game. 

Given his continued development this year, it seems like an appropriate time to check in on good old No. 85. Without further ado, here is an in-depth exploration of Davis’ commanding season up to the halfway point, taking the form of a narrative that also reflects on where the 49ers tight end is at in this stage of his NFL career.

A Dominant Receiving Threat

Vernon Davis Career Statistics
Projected 2013651,1651517.9
Pro Football Reference

In 10 less games, Davis already has 85 percent of the receiving yards he accrued all of last season (466 to 548). He has also found the end zone one more time, scoring six total touchdowns for a threat-deprived offense, in what is turning out to be a blue-chip year for the 49ers' veteran tight end.

In the six matchups he’s suited up for, thus far, Davis has been bringing the house down, averaging 4.3 catches, 77.6 yards and 1.0 touchdown per game. His scores and yards-per-catch average are also higher than several top-five receivers, including Eric Decker, A.J. Green, DeSean Jackson and Demaryius Thomas.

Actually, his 17.9 YPC is higher than 22 of 23 receivers ahead of him in yardage, only behind undisputed yards leader Torrey Smith (20.3).

He has been carving teams up.

Believe it or not, with nine games left on the schedule, Davis is on track to finish with 65 grabs, 1,165 yards and 15 touchdowns. Not only his production off the charts—rivaling, and in some cases, besting elite wide receivers—but Davis is also the reason this team has been able to win games.

The 49ers' star tight end has averaged 15.5, 22.5 and 29.3 yards per catch in his last three performances. In five of six games this year, Davis has either averaged 15-plus-yards per catch or scored a touchdown—all of which have been victories. The correlation between his production and team wins could not be clearer.

In San Francisco’s only two losses, Davis logged a season-low 20 yards on three grabs, and for the other one, he was inactive with a hamstring injury (the team only scored seven points without him). We’re witnessing firsthand how vital a component he has been to the team, and this is just from a receiving standpoint.

Understandably, this is a lot to digest, especially if you are not a numbers person. But if you only read one stat, please let it be the fact that he is responsible for 23.8 percent of offensive points scored and nearly 39 percent of the total passing offense.

And he missed a game.

We talk about consistency among players, and it’s a term that is probably overused, but it has truly been a staple of Davis’ game (if not receiving one game, then it is his blocking). Every time he goes out for the ball, it sets off bells in the opponent’s secondary because he is that dangerous.

The slightest miscalculation and that’s that.

The stat-crunchers at Pro Football Focus have been able to verify his productivity on a down-to-down basis, narrowing it to each time he runs out for a pass. As it is, Davis is averaging 2.97 yards per route run, which is the highest for a tight end, besting New Orleans Saints phenom Jimmy Graham (2.82).

That means, every time Davis goes out for the ball, he is likely to do more damage than Graham.

Shocking to the cursory NFL fan, no doubt. But to give credit where it is due, Davis has clearly elevated his game, proving to be as dominant a pass-catcher as any. Everything is working for him right now. The only thing he does not have at the moment is more weapons to take the pressure off, but that hasn't mattered so far. 

The 49ers are doing enough in the air, and it all revolves around Davis. Here is a look at his 64-yard touchdown versus the Houston Texans. This example demonstrates his speed, fluid route-running ability and understanding of the offense, particularly the play intent.

h/t Game Rewind
h/t Game Rewind

Personnel: Posse (3 WR-1 RB-1 TE)

Formation: Shotgun, Diamond Backfield

Down-and-Distance: 3rd-and-5

Quarter: 4th

Even though wideout Anquan Boldin is lined up in the backfield, the 49ers do have a bunch set on the backside of the formation with him, Davis and Kyle Williams huddled within a few yards. The defense is seeing three receivers stacked, one on top of another.

Before Boldin was settled in the sidecar position, he motioned over from the right side of the formation, near where Jon Baldwin stands (No. 84 on the bottom of the screen). There wasn't much change after the shift, which could mean Houston is in zone.

They're also bringing heat. As you can see, the Texans have five defenders down near the line of scrimmage, looking like they're bringing a little extra pressure.

Right off the bat, we can tell this play has been philosophized on the route combinations on the weak side of the formation. The three receivers to the quarterback’s left are going to clear out, while Colin Kaepernick runs play action with Frank Gore out of the backfield.

Safety D.J. Swearinger—who was originally shading Davis in the slot—turns out to be the extra blitzer off the edge in what is zone coverage across the board by this secondary. The hard-charging rookie safety comes down on read-option/play-fake by the 49ers. 

With the look by Kap and Gore, this could very well be a handoff or a keeper.

We’re going to change angles to provide a better view of the quarterback’s perspective.

With Swearinger crashing down on the pocket in this frame, Kaepernick pulls the ball back quickly and gets his eyes downfield to assess his options. With his body facing left, Kap is evaluating the coverage versus what is essentially a hi-lo read with Boldin and Davis outside the numbers.

Boldin is going to run the smash route, while Davis runs a deep flag route, and the coverage will dictate who Kaepernick throws to. 

By design, Williams works his way back inside the hashes, no doubt trying to pull any defender he can out of Kap’s intended passing lane. The role of the decoy is vital to creating space for the intended receiver here. And, of course, Gore is left to pick up the free blitzer, which he tends to do quite well.

We're also going to highlight free safety Ed Reed (circled green) who is 20 or so yards back playing single-high.

The problem for the Texans here is that both corners, Kareem Jackson and Brice McCain (circled blue), drive on the underneath route to Boldin. On top of which, the other safety, D.J. Swearinger has already been removed from the play, as he was sacrificed on a blitz that was beautifully picked up by Gore.

This spells all kind of trouble for Houston, which is now left with speedster Vernon Davis running a flag to the sideline versus a 35-year-old Reed, who is playing center field by himself.

Poor Reed; three of the five defensive backs on this play have been negated by poor decision-making and bad execution, while the other two are on the opposite side of the field and never engaged in the play.

Look at all the separation, well after the throw is on its way. 

Davis' speed, understanding of the play and being where he needed to be made this play go down. There was no way Reed was going to be able to get over there in time, and the 49ers tight end probably knew it before the play was even snapped. 

/Getty Images

The Statement Game 

In four out of five career postseason games (2011-12), Davis crossed over 100 yards receiving, including a seven-catch, 180-yard clinic over the New Orleans Saints. Yet in the 100 regular-season contests he partook in prior to 2013, the tight end only surpassed the century mark a total of eight times.

That’s not very many.

People wanted to know, and justifiably so, could these glimpses translate week to week?

It did not take long to get our answer. Following first-rate showings versus the Green Bay Packers and Houston Texans, we officially received our stamp of approval from Davis when he went up against the rival Arizona Cardinals in Week 6. Simply put: They could not cover him.

He gave that defense fits all day, gashing Patrick Peterson’s defensive backfield eight times on 11 targets for 180 yards receiving. Davis would cap off the day with a 22.5 yards-per-catch average and a pair of touchdowns (61 and 35 yards). This was a big coming-out game for the tight end, as far as the regular season goes.

He really planted his flag, illustrating what we’ll be getting for the remainder of his career.

The interesting part about that is, during this takeover by Davis, he asserted himself as more than just a dependable receiver; he was a prominent deep threat. According to Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus, he has a booming average depth of target of 14.7 yards, which is currently the most among tight ends.

And he is not as big as, say, Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham, who are essentially open wherever they stand. Where is the fun in that? No, Davis actually has to work to create separation, which he does masterfully. It is like a ballet on ice, as he effortlessly glides to open space.

Prior to the 2006 NFL draft, it wasn’t size that had scouts licking their chops, but rather, it was the 4.38 40-time Davis blazed, along with a 42” vertical (h/t NFL Draft Scout). Years later—where league experience and the evolution of the sport itself have factored in—the 49ers tight end is now unstoppable in one-on-one coverage.

As a hybrid, he is nearly impossible to defend.

Physically, safeties, linebackers and cornerbacks are all deficient in one area or another, so Davis can access different strengths to win in a multitude of ways. Two out of the three positions, Davis has no trouble getting behind, and the other, he can outmuscle, which has led to an outburst of big plays this year, especially now with Kaepernick.

This was on full display versus the Cardinals. Let us dive back into the tape and take a glance at his 35-yard touchdown.

h/t NFL Game Rewind
h/t NFL Game Rewind

Personnel: Ace (2 WR-1 RB-2 TE)

Formation: Shotgun

Down-and-Distance: 1st-and-10

Quarter: 2nd

Two things are going to happen on this play:

  1. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is going to call a play that is intended to fish out a mismatch. The 49ers show their Ace or “22” personnel here, with Anquan Boldin and Kyle Williams on the weak side of the formation, while tight end Vance McDonald is flush with the line of scrimmage, head down like an in-line blocker.
  2. Note: As the No. 2 tight end lined up at the primary TE spot, McDonald is the key component here.
  3. The 49ers are going to get the mismatch they want with safety Yeremiah Bell on Vernon Davis, who is out on an island at the Z receiver position. That is the first read for Kaepernick, and that is the ball is he is going to throw, counting on Davis to beat his man.

Davis is trailing Bell early, beginning to work toward the boundary while preparing to make his move to get behind the safety.

Davis pulls toward the sideline, which causes Bell to turn his hips and lose speed. The tight end is going to turn the jets on here and get to the pylon, where Kap intends on dropping the ball.

Even still, Bell has good position but he misjudges the throw.

After using that sub-4.4 speed, Davis effortlessly taps that vertical ability and makes his move to go up for the football.

Granted, the ball placement by the quarterback was phenomenal. But this was a dominant presentation by Davis, who showed that even when he is covered, he is open. It also goes to show the synchronicity he has with Kaepernick right now, which will only continue to develop.

Aside from the individual ability of both parties, the trust and timing is there, which has made this one of the more unstoppable passing tandems in the NFL this year. Chemistry is a powerful element—but when the talent is there to support it, it can lead to dreamlike performances on the football field.

Blocker and Team Leader

Touching back on his predraft measurables, Davis totaled 33 bench reps of 225 pounds, which is the fourth-highest, going back to the 1999 NFL draft, ranking only after Orson Charles, Daniel Coates and Ben Watson—none of whom were top-10 or even first-round prospects like Davis, via NFL Combine Results.

So, outside the torching speed and Peter Pan-like leaping ability, he was able to source an immense level of upper-body strength. Incredibly, Davis also maxed out 460 pounds on the bench as a junior at Maryland, per CBS Sports.

All that physical ability made the former Terp the highest-graded tight end by draft guru Matt Miller of Bleacher Report, who says, “He was a freak.” It is clear that this kind of talent does not come around very often—you just won’t find it every year or even every decade.

Receiving ability aside, he has been a team leader, an effervescent locker-room presence and a selfless contributor on the field.

Lost in translation in all those vanilla seasons where Davis was not a flashy stat leader was how well a job he did as a run- and pass-blocking tight end. Very quietly, he honed his skills, perfecting his technique in the trenches.

As John Brenkus of ESPN’s Sports Science discovered in this study (seen right), Davis generates as much force as a powering left tackle.

He sets that edge so well, essentially giving the 49ers a sixth offensive lineman without the defense reacting to it personnel-wise. But honestly, having Davis in the lineup is like having a Tank formation every time. He bulldozes most of the speed rushers and outside linebackers and can still derail heavier defensive tackles.

Outside left guard Mike Iupati and fullback Bruce Miller, there is not a more important player to running the football.


/Getty Images

Vernon Davis is the total package at tight end—arguably the best “all-around” player at his position because of all he does. His value goes far beyond what the naked eye tends to see every Sunday. The Fox Sports camera crew does not capture everything, and most fans at the stadium only watch the football.

But this banner year is great for football fans and great for the NFL.

You’ve got a one-of-a-kind talent who is completing his breakthrough eight years after being drafted, and now that he is there, the big plays are just pouring out of him. He is at a point in his career where experience, talent, system and team situation have all converged majestically.

A perfect aligning of the stars, if you will. 

After teetering on greatness, experiencing these sporadic jolts on the stat sheet, it seems as if he has knocked down that final wall. Much like running back Frank Gore or this hulking offensive line, the 49ers tight end is beginning to take over on command, imposing his will and consistently winning his matchups week to week.

While he has always been an elite talent, he is now in the realm of an elite player. 

And if you don’t think Davis is one of the best tight ends in all of football today, you may need to reevaluate your standards of the position. When it comes to executing the all-inclusive duties of the position, he has been flawless.

Statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference and Pro Football Focus, unless specified otherwise. Screen grabs provided by NFL Game Rewind (subscription required). 


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