When the San Francisco 49ers drafted TE Vernon Davis in the first-round (No. 6) of the 2006 NFL Draft, they knew they had drafted a new breed of tight-end. A player that was quickly rising up draft boards due to a strong NFL combine, Davis was the epitome of a H-W-S (Height, Weight, Speed) player. Measuring in at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Davis clocked a jaw dropping 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds. He also excelled in the bench press, broad jump, and vertical leap, by knocking out 33 reps on the bench, 128-inch broad jump, and 42-inch vertical. It was arguably the most impressive NFL combine ever, as Davis was a freak of nature.
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An immediate upgrade to the tight-end position, as the 49ers had players like TE Billy Bajema, TE Trent Smith, and TE Terry Jones, Davis was by far superior of them all, and made an instant impact his rookie season. In 10 games, Davis recorded 20 receptions for 265 yards (13.3 average) and three touchdowns. A minor set-back as Davis suffered a hair-line fracture to his left fibula, causing him to miss six games, Davis more than held his own when healthy. However, it was not until the 2009 season, that Davis would become the elite player, the Forever Faithful had envisioned.
In what was Davis’ best season of his career, Davis was the focal point of the offense, and as a result racked up 78 receptions for 965 yards, and 13 touchdowns, while being named to his first Pro-Bowl. Davis then carried that success in 2010, and recorded 56 receptions for 914 yards, and seven touchdowns, despite transitioning to a new offensive coordinator, as Jimmy Raye was replaced by quarterbacks coach Mike Johnson.
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Since then, Davis has not been able to put up the gaudy numbers he enjoyed under Mike Singletary, and the question remains why? One reason, is that Davis has a better supporting cast around him. Under years in which Davis put up back-to-back 900 yard seasons, he had marginal wide receivers at best, in players such as WR Arnaz Battle, WR Isaac Bruce, WR Jason Hill, WR Michael Crabtree, WR Ted Ginn Jr, and WR Kyle Williams just to name a few. And although Crabtree has come into his own, keep in mind that he was just a rookie, still learning the nuances of the game. Compare that receivers unit to today, and you will see one of the reasons why Davis stats have suffered.
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An even bigger factor in Davis not being able to put up eye-popping stats, is due to Head coach Jim Harbaugh’s offensive philosophy. Sure he runs a hybrid West Coast offense, but the meat and potatoes is their smash-mouth running game. The 49ers are built for the run, and everyone in the NFL knows it. They are physical, aggressive, and tough. The Niner’s offense impose their will, and physically wear down defenses, leaving defenses to basically yell out “uncle” in the fourth-quarter. A true run-first oriented team, Davis’ targets are limited, which is why he does not put up TE Jimmy Graham type stats.
Which leads me to my third point, blocking. In order to be a complete tight-end, you need to excel at both receiving and blocking. A true all-around tight-end will block like an offensive lineman and catch like a receiver, and Davis does just that. He has already proven himself as a one of the biggest down field threats when given the opportunity, and now he is proving he is a double threat as a blocking tight-end. By far the best blocking tight-end in the game today, Davis plays every down as if it’s his last, and frequently helps open up running lanes for RB Frank Gore, RB Kendall Hunter, and RB LaMichael James. A consummate team player, that was not always the case, especially during the Mike Singletary days. The coach that transformed a once selfish, arrogant, and egotistical diva, Singletary made him a better person by calling him out, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
It was Singletary’s head coaching debut on October 26, 2008, against division rival Seattle Seahawks. The chain of events occurred starting in the third quarter, as Davis caught a 7-yard pass, and then after the play, slapped Seahawks safety Brian Russell in the facemask. As Davis calmly walked off the field, a furious coach reprimanded Davis and told him to hit the showers. And that’s when the blessing in disguise took place.
During the post game press conference all eyes were on Singletary’s actions toward Davis. And Singletary responded saying:
We cannot make decisions that cost the team, and then come off the sideline and it’s nonchalant. No. I’d rather play with 10 people and just get penalized all the way, until we have to do something else, rather than play with 11, when I know that right now, that person is not sold out, to be a part of this team.
It is more about them, then it is about the team. Can not play with them, can not win with them, can not coach with them, can’t do it. I want winners. I want people that want to win.
Davis took that as a learning experience moving forward, saying:
I remember the very first time he kicked me off the field. Tears were shed. I told him, ‘I want to be traded Coach.’ He said, OK. I’ll find another team for you.That moment, it started to click for me. It made me a better man, a better teammate and a better leader for my team. It helped me become the player I am today.
From that day forward, Davis was a changed man, and had risen as a leader on the team. Today, he continues leading by example through his unwavering work ethic and determination for success. A true leader that will often voice his opinion, Davis has become the unquestioned captain on the offensive side of the ball, despite not having the designation.
When you look at the best all-around tight-end in the NFL, there is no question in my mind that Davis is the obvious choice. And although, Graham (New Orleans Saints), TE Rob Gronkowski (New England Patriots), and TE Tony Gonzales (Atlanta Falcons), may have better offensive stats, they clearly do not provide much value in the blocking game. And in order to be a complete tight-end, you must be able to catch like a receiver and block like a lineman, making Davis the obvious choice.