San Francisco 49ers: Evaluating Vernon Davis' Potential Contract Value

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San Francisco 49ers: Evaluating Vernon Davis' Potential Contract Value
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Vernon Davis is somewhat unhappy with his contract and is seeking an extension from the San Francisco 49ers.  To that end, Davis has been absent from the team’s OTA practices, forfeiting his $200,000 workout bonus.

Davis has indicated he’ll be back with the team next week for the mandatory minicamp, telling local radio station KNBR that “it’s mandatory, so I should be there, for sure.”  That doesn’t mean he’s changed his mind on his value—it’s just that his contract doesn’t expire until after the 2015 season, meaning there’s still plenty of time for an extension to be hammered out.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press

Davis doesn’t have very much leverage because he is under contract for two more seasons.  But what if that wasn’t the case?  What if Davis had hit the free market this offseason—what kind of contract would he have been looking at?  Let’s delve into that question a bit to try to figure out what Davis’ value is now and how that applies to his upcoming contract negotiations.

Davis just turned 30 this last January, so he’s beginning to get up there in age.  As one of the most physically demanding positions in football, tight ends tend to peak at age 26 and trail off quite rapidly after that. 

It’s one of the most physically demanding positions in the game, requiring not only a receiver’s speed and agility, but a lineman’s blocking talents.  No position other than running back sees such a rapid drop-off in effectiveness.

Davis, however, has defied aging curves to a certain extent.  Over the past three seasons, Davis has been the fifth-most valuable tight end in football behind only Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten.  As Davis runs routes more often than he blocks, he might avoid some of the rough play that can shorten NFL careers.

Over the past three seasons, Davis has come down with 160 receptions for 2,190 yards and 24 touchdowns.  That puts him in the top 10 among tight ends in all three categories, including in the top three in touchdowns behind only Graham and Gronkowski.

He’s a high-quality player; there’s no doubt about that.  He might be a step behind Graham and a healthy Gronkowski—though Davis’ health and Gronkowski’s lack thereof certainly has to be taken into consideration when evaluating value.  He’s definitely right there in that next tier of players with the Jason Wittens of the world.

What’s the going rate for a top tight end these days?  Jimmy Graham earned a franchise tag this offseason at $7.035 million for 2014.  He’s not a perfect comparison for Davis, however, because he is arguing that he should be valued as a wide receiver.  Graham spends much more time split out in the slot than Davis does, so let’s discard Graham as a potential outlier.

Here are some other contracts recently signed by tight ends as they begin to enter their 30s.

Recent Tight End Contracts
Player Team Length Value Signing Bonus Average
Jason Witten Dallas 5 $37 million $12.5 million $7.4 million
Antonio Gates San Diego 5 $36.2 million $4.6 million $7.2 million
Dennis Pitta Baltimore 5 $32 million $11 million $6.4 million
Heath Miller Pittsburgh 3 $14 million $5 million $4.7 million
Anthony Fasano Kansas City 4 $16 million $4.5 million $4 million
Brandon Pettigrew Detroit 4 $16 million $4 million $4 million
Joel Dreessen Denver 3 $8.5 million $2 million $2.8 million
Average NFL 4.1 $22.8 million $6.2 million $5.2 million

Credit: Spotrac.com

It’s clear Davis should be more toward the top of this list than the bottom; Witten and Antonio Gates’ deals are more reflective of Davis’ actual ability than some of the shorter deals given to Joel Dreessen or Brandon Pettigrew.

Just based on raw numbers, Davis’ contract should be worth less than that of Gates.  In the three years leading up to his most recent contract extension, Gates put up 189 receptions for 2,643 yards and 26 touchdowns.  Even adjusting for the increased salary cap, Davis falls just short of Gates’ value.

By the same token, Davis should earn more than Dennis Pitta—his numbers over the last three years are 121 receptions for 1,243 yards and 11 touchdowns while missing a dozen games.  Davis has shown more on the field than Pitta has.

How much more?  To come up with a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I took the accumulated stats for all seven tight ends over the three years before their extensions and compared it to Davis’ numbers over the past three seasons.

Comparing Tight Ends with Vernon Davis
Player Years G Rec Yds Yds/G TDs
Jason Witten '10-'12 48 283 2,983 62.1 17
Antonio Gates '08-'10 42 189 2,643 62.9 26
Dennis Pitta '11-'13 36 121 1,243 34.5 11
Heath Miller '11-'13 45 180 2,040 45.3 11
Anthony Fasano '10-'12 46 112 1,311 28.5 14
Brandon Pettigrew '11-'13 44 183 1,760 40 10
Joel Dreessen '09-'11 48 90 1,191 24.8 11
Average N/A 44.1 165.4 1,881.6 42.6 14.3
Vernon Davis '11-'13 47 160 2,190 46.6 24
Ratio N/A 1.06 0.97 1.16 1.09 1.68

Credit: Pro Football Reference

You can see that Davis scores touchdowns at a much higher rate than his contemporaries and is a bigger deep threat, racking up more yards than everyone other than Witten or Gates.  I took those comparisons and multiplied each player’s contract by the percentage he was above or under Davis’ stats.  Finally, I adjusted that for the difference in the salary cap between the two years in question.

Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Davis is beginning to enter the downside of his career.

You put everything together, and Davis’ yearly value comes out to about $6.8 million a season with a signing bonus of about $9.5 million.  That feels about right—it puts him right behind Witten and Gates in terms of salary with a substantial, if not oppressive, amount guaranteed. 

A five-year, $34 million contract would put Davis in the top 10 tight end contracts in the NFL—and be less than he made on his last deal.  Considering this deal would likely be his last major deal, that does pass the eyeball test.

Of course, Davis is not a free agent.  He still has two years left on his contract with $9.45 million in base salary and workout bonuses still due to him along with $3.33 million of signing bonus still counting against the cap.

What the team can do for him, then, is add some more cash up front and some guaranteed years to his deal.  Davis can’t expect to get too much of a raise, as he’s already the second-highest paid tight end in football.  We’re looking at a deal that will add years while lowering the average cap hit as Davis reaches his twilight seasons.

A three-year, $19.8 million extension feels just about right for Davis, considering what he still has coming to him from his current contract.  That would extend him out through 2018, when he’ll be 35 years old.

That would probably have to come with a significant signing bonus as well. 

The 49ers only have about $6.1 million of cap room at the moment, but they could convert some of Davis’ $4.7 million base salary into a signing bonus to gain some room.  Something in the neighborhood of $6 million plus his base salary guaranteed for next season would give Davis plenty of cash up front while lowering his cap hit in years to come.

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Alex Boone is also seeking a new contract.

It would be tight, but the 49ers could squeeze this sort of deal in this season.  The problem is that might stop them from extending Alex Boone, who also is looking for a new contract and frankly has a bit more of a case than Davis does.  The 49ers might also decide that the $20 million extension would be best served elsewhere.

If they want to give Davis a market-value extension, however, they’re going to have to find a way to carve out a little under $7 million a season for him.  We’ll have to wait and see what San Francisco’s cap priorities are in the years to come.

 

Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers.  Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.

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