Vernon Davis' Holdout Is Justified, but He Has No Leverage in This Situation

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterJune 17, 2014

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Over the course of Vernon Davis’ eight-year career, the San Francisco 49ers' tight end has shown that he is capable of playing at a high level annually.

In 119 career games, the All-Pro pass-catcher has amassed 397 receptions, 5,201 yards receiving, 53 touchdowns and two Pro Bowl selections.

His most recent selection came this past year, as he was a driving force behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s success. Davis ended the 2013 season with 850 yards receiving, 13 touchdowns and a grade from the folks at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) of plus-8.6.

Based on those numbers, it’s clear that Davis’ holdout is justified, but he has no leverage in this particular situation. He’s 30 years old, he signed a hefty contract extension in 2010 and the 49ers added a plethora of pass-catching options during the offseason (Stevie Johnson and Bruce Ellington). 

No, you can’t blame Davis for wanting to squeeze every last cent out of his career, but San Francisco controls his rights until he’s 32 years old. And as they say, “If you don’t like the terms of your contract, you shouldn’t have signed it.”

The only problem is the 49ers made Davis the highest-paid tight end in league history in 2010. They gave him a five-year, $37 million contract extension with $23 million guaranteed. 

Even by today’s standards, that’s a good chunk of change. In fact, Davis carries a $7,142,916 cap number in 2014, a $7,017,918 cap number in 2015 and averages $7.35 million a year over the length of his contract.

This, in turn, means there is only one tight end in the NFL who averages more money than Davis on a yearly basis. And that tight end is Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys. He averages $7.4 million a season and has four years left on his current deal.

The seven highest-paid tight ends in the NFL based on average salary per year.
The seven highest-paid tight ends in the NFL based on average salary per year.Credit: Spotrac

So, what gives? What will it take to make Davis happy? Here’s what he said in his guest column at “It’s all about getting paid what you deserve. It’s not that complicated.”

Davis is right: It’s not that complicated. But for him to think he deserves to be the highest-paid tight end in the league at 30 years of age is ridiculous. 

Sure, he is coming off a season where he tied career highs in receiving yards per reception and touchdowns, but what about the games where he was wildly inconsistent?

Despite the fact Davis registered at least 75 yards receiving in five regular-season games last year, he also surrounded himself with a few stinkers. For a case in point, take a look at the six games where he finished with 35 yards receiving or less. 

Let’s not forget, Davis was a disappearing act in the playoffs as well. In three postseason games against the Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, the 250-pound specimen only tallied five receptions for 54 yards receiving.

Here's a look at Davis' rating by the week in 2012. Pay close attention to his playoff performances.
Here's a look at Davis' rating by the week in 2012. Pay close attention to his playoff performances.Credit: PFF

That’s a huge drop-off from his postseason numbers in 2012. In playoff games versus the Packers, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens, Davis registered 12 catches, 254 yards receiving, one touchdown and a PFF grade of plus-11.2. 

Davis’ shortcomings don’t mean he is replaceable. It just means he had an inconsistent year where his play faded toward the end of the season.

It’s normal for players to have stretches of play where they underachieve. Yet, if you want to be the highest-paid tight end in the league, you better be able to catch more than 10 passes and record more than 145 yards receiving over the final four games of the season. 

San Francisco knows that. It knows about his inconsistencies on the field and his loudmouth persona in begging for a new contract off the field, which is why one would think general manager Trent Baalke and the 49ers would be in no position to budge. 

Baalke and the 49ers hold all the chips. All they have to do is tell Davis he is under their control for the next two years and remind him that they have others players who would be happy to take his snaps in Greg Roman’s offense. 

Quinton Patton, Brandon Lloyd, Vance McDonald, Johnson and Ellington would all be more than capable of filling Davis’ shoes if he were out of the lineup for an extended period of time because of a holdout. 

With the group mentioned above, Roman’s offense would look a little bit different—more three- and four-wide receiver sets—but that’s OK because pundits have been saying for some time now that the 49ers may look to expand their passing game outside of Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree in 2014. 

Matt Maiocco of echoed this sentiment on June 10: “I think it's reasonable for the 49ers to put more on Kaepernick's plate in the passing game, which would then enable him to put up bigger numbers.”

Maiocco’s point makes a ton of sense. With the high-dollar contract and offensive weapons in place, it’s safe to say San Francisco’s offensive success will fall heavily on Kaepernick’s shoulders. And that’s the way it should be in a quarterback-driven league. High-dollar contracts equal heightened expectations. It’s as simple as that.

With that being said, it would be hard to see a 30-year-old tight end live up to a contract that would pay him more than $7.35 million annually. 

Honestly, there are only two tight ends in the NFL who are worth more than $7.35 million a year. The first one is Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints, and the second one is Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots.

Both players are in the prime years of their careers, both players pile up gobs of yardage when they are healthy and both players turn in top-notch performances weekly. Those same things can’t be said about Davis. 

He’s entering the final years of his career, he has never topped the 1,000-yard mark in a season and as I referenced above, he is widely inconsistent at particular points throughout the season. 

We all realize that the NFL is a business, and you need to get yours while you can. That’s no secret. But for Davis to hold out and demand more money when he’s in no position to is laughable. 

Things would be entirely different if Davis had an ounce of leverage or was grossly underpaid, but that’s not the case. The 49ers need to stand firm, hold their ground and keep fining Davis until he makes his way back to the team. 

Yes, forfeiting $270,000 for missed workouts and missed minicamp sessions is minuscule to Davis. However, things will start to get real once training camp rolls around, as the 49ers can fine him $30,000 a day for every missed day of training camp, reports Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports. 

Besides, Davis should open his eyes and realize that Baalke and the 49ers’ front-office staff are more concerned about the contracts of Crabtree, Mike Iupati and Alex Boone. 

All three players have higher ceilings than Davis at this stage in their careers, and all three players mean more to the long-term success of the organization. 

Sorry Mr. Davis, your yearly average of $7.35 million will have to do. Hopefully you can get by. 

Unless otherwise noted, all contract numbers via Spotrac and all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).


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