The San Francisco 49ers made a very savvy move early this spring, taking advantage of the lack of a salary cap to give perennial All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis just reward for his early career success, while securing him in red and gold for the next five seasons.
The move marked a departure from the normal salary cap-mandated work around of a back-heavy contract, and gave the young linebacker a large sum of money up front, while reducing the pay-out later in the contract, thus lessening the cap hit when it inevitably returns to the NFL.
This move was the perfect storm. In a classic win-win scenario, the 49ers made a tremendous investment in their promising future, locking up a uniquely talented player through the prime of his career. The contract gave Willis a much-deserved reward and validation for three seasons of tremendous play, while still securing his future as a 49er at a price that will not jeopardize the team moving forward and simultaneously foregoing the free-agency circus that would have ensued a year from now.
It was a brilliant way to take advantage a gleaming opportunity, but have the 49ers been letting a similar opportunistic knock go thus-far unanswered?
Once-vilified prima donna turned All-Pro and team captain, tight end Vernon Davis sits poised to enter a contract year in 2010 as well. Given his unique combination of size, strength, speed, hands, blocking, and more recently leadership and work ethic, it is puzzling why Vernon has yet to receive the Willis treatment.
Despite some alleged negotiations earlier this spring, it appears Vernon will enter training camp at the end of the month playing out the final year of the contract he signed as a rookie.
I am left to ask why.
Sure, Vernon's metamorphosis from team pariah to All-Pro, record-setting team captain was so quick and dramatic that one would be remiss not to question its authenticity. But all indications are that the former Maryland Terrapin has left the days of picking fights between plays, erupting in training camp practices , and inspiring vehement post-game press conference rants from head coach Mike Singletary well behind him.
He went about his business in 2009 with nothing but the utmost candor and professionalism, and on-field production seemed to follow hand-in-hand as a necessary consequence of moving beyond his past on-and-off-field antics. He rose to such esteem among his peers and coaches as to garner the title of team captain and rewarded their confidence with an NFL-record tying 13 touchdowns and a Pro-Bowl start, while contributing strongly in pass and run blocking as well.
Even his 2010 offseason behavior reflected a continuation of his burgeoning maturity. When Patrick Willis was rewarded with his new contract, Davis urged the 49ers to consider doing the same for him, but did not allow this issue to effect his nor the team's focus during mini-camps and organized team activities.
Unlike linebacker Manny Lawson, also petitioning for a new deal, Vernon attended every team drill this offseason and continued to work on maturing the chemistry between himself and established starting quarterback Alex Smith which looked very strong already at times last season.
So why is there still a seeming hesitation in locking down such a game-changing and team-oriented player?
Some among the 49er Faithful have expressed valid concerns about the short track record of his on-the-field success and maturity. Fine. If his consummate professionalism over the last year plus has not been enough to convince you, the 49ers could easily offer an incentivized contract to protect themselves.
Offer Vernon the money he wants contingent upon achievement of mutually-agreed baseline statistical production: say 45 catches, 750 yards, and 10 touchdowns. Should he fail to meet the establish criteria, the contract would revert to some lower level of base pay. I see no reason why he would have a problem agreeing to such a prospect.
A secondary set of loftier bonus pay outs could also be added to bolster motivation, though in my honest opinion, motivation is no longer a department in which Vernon Davis is deficient.
The lack of a 2010 salary cap offers a unique opportunity to the 49ers to secure key contributors to the future success of the franchise. They took the first step with Patrick Willis, but I think they would be remiss to allow Vernon Davis to play out the remaining year of his current contract.
Re-signing him now would avert a potential major fiasco a year from now, and could easily be done in a way that poses minimal risk to the financial future of the team. I for one hope a deal gets done soon.
Keep the Faith!