"The next Antonio Gates"
These were all the words used to describe Vernon Davis when he came out of the University of Maryland in the 2006 NFL Draft. The 49ers drafted him with the #6 overall pick, at the time making him the highest paid tight end in league. When drafted, Davis represented a type of tight end never seen before: a WR in a TE's body who scouts thought would be uncoverable. At 6'3, 254 lbs, Davis ran the 40 yard dash in a blazing, 4.38 seconds (faster than any other TE to come before him) and set off a media hype that he would soon revolutionize the TE position. As a rookie in 10 games, he caught 20 balls for 265 yards and 3 TDs. In his second year, Davis improved, reeling in 52 receptions for 509 yards and 4 TDs. Prior to the 2008 season, the 49ers brought in offensive guru Mike Martz, and expectations of a huge season from Davis soared among the 49ers faithful. Many experts and fans alike thought 2008 would be the season when Davis justified his large paycheck and became an elite NFL TE.
Yet Davis, now in his third season in the NFL, currently ranks at 22nd in receiving yards among TEs, with his fellow 2006 NFL Draftees, Tony Scheffler of the Denver Broncos (drafted #61 overall) and Owen Daniels of the Houston Texans (drafted #98), coming in third and forth respectively. Through four games, he has totaled only 5 receptions for 87 yards and no touchdowns. He has drawn the ire of many 49er fans for dropping too many balls, not playing at his Combine speed, and generally not living up to his expectations.
So what is going on? Is Davis ever going to be the next Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates? Or were expectations too high or possibly misplaced?
After two seasons and from watching the first four games of the season I have made several conclusions about Vernon Davis.
1) Davis is not a natural receiver
When Davis was first drafted one of his biggest issues was getting his routes down cleanly, and I believe he still struggles with this today. At Maryland, he ran simple routes in flat or crossing across the middle, unlike the precise, timing-based routes that are required in the Martz offense. He struggles with maintaining body control and although hes is fast, he is not as fluid as Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates. In fact, the 49ers' other tight end (and former college WR), Delaine Walker, is much more of a pure receiving tight end and pass catcher than Davis.
2) In the receiving game, Davis is not being used properly
Thus far, Martz has tried to utilize Davis' 4.38 40 speed by having him run go-routes and trying to stretch the field vertically. However Davis, lacks the hands and body control to catch balls 20 and 30 yards down the field. When Martz has called screens or short passes to Davis in the flat, he has been able to generate momentum, break tackles, and get a lot of yards after the catch (YAC). Davis may clock in faster than most WRs, but he lacks the quickness of a WR and needs space to gain momentum and get his speed up. His Maryland coaches realized this and this play epitomizes the proper way to use Vernon Davis in the passing game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32_hcukg3nU
3) Davis is one of the best blocking TEs in the NFL
One of the reasons that Davis only has 5 receptions this season is that Martz sometimes takes advantage of Davis' superb blocking ability by having him block on passing plays. At 6'3, 254 lbs of pure muscle, Davis is capable of blocking most defensive ends 1 on 1 and is adept at picking up the blitz. Davis' blocking ability has also contributed to Frank Gore currently leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and tied for 4th in rushing yards. On toss or off tackle plays, Davis is often the one sealing the DE or OLB inside, creating running room for Gore to work his magic. If you watch Week 3 highlights of the Niners vs. Detroit, you will see that on Gore's two biggest runs of the day (one short yardage TD and another 30+ yd run) Vernon Davis pancakes his defender on both plays. Later in the game, on fellow TE Delaine Walker's TD, Vernon Davis is kept in to block and keeps the LE from getting to the quarterback.
4) Davis is doing his job...and doing it (fairly) well.
While the fans may not be happy with Vernon Davis, on the whole Davis is doing what is asked of him by the coach staff. Despite the drops, Davis route running has improved since his rookie season and he is trying to work on his chemistry and timing with QB JT O'Sullivan. He protects O'Sullivan from defensive ends in passing plays and creates outside running room for Gore on tosses and pitches.
Overall conclusion on Vernon Davis:
As a receiving TE, Vernon Davis will never match the totals of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, or Kellen Winslow. He simply lacks the fluidity, hands, and receiving ability of those elite TEs. However, Davis is a great blocking TE and can heavily contribute to the offense through short, 3-10 yd routes where he can use his strength and momentum to gain yardage. Of course, Davis does not warrant the 5 year, $23 million deal that made him the highest paid TE, but he does give the 49ers a decent short-yardage receiving option and an exceptional pass and run blocker. Although not a bust, (unlike what most of think of teammate Alex Smith), Davis has not lived up to the media hype and most likely never will. He may have a Pro Bowl year here and there, but his main contributions will come as a blocker and in the short passing game.