If 49ers tight end Vernon Davis doesn’t become a star, it won’t be for lack of confidence. When I asked him in a training camp interview how he compared himself with other tight ends, he said, “When I look at videos of other tight ends and know what I can do, it’s ridiculous.”
It’s true that the 49ers took him as their first-round pick in the 2006 draft because he had an unusual blend of speed and size, but there was a question about his blocking. And now? He points to the big year Frank Gore had last season.
“All of Frank’s big runs came around my side,” he claimed. “I’ll let that speak for itself.”
In the last couple of decades, tight ends have evolved from being primarily blockers and emergency outlets for short passes — think of Monty Stickles for the 49ers in the ’60s — to receivers who can be split out and used on deep patterns. Kellen Winslow was the prototype years ago.
Davis is in the latter mode. He’s expected to block, but his most important role is as a receiver capable of catching the ball deep down the middle, where zone defenses are vulnerable.
His pass-catching ability developed when he started as a receiver in high school.
“My coach switched me to tight end because he said I’d get too big to be a receiver,” he said.
Just short of 6-foot-4, he’s a well-muscled 250 pounds and stays that way with hard work. The day I interviewed him, I waited for 45 minutes while he worked out in the weight room — after a full morning practice.
Despite his natural ability, Davis had a rocky first year. He was injured part of the time and he had trouble staying in sync with his quarterback, Alex Smith. He also dropped too many passes.
“He’s still dropping passes,” noted coach Mike Nolan. “He takes his eye off the ball because he’s always trying to make a big play. That’s a habit he’s going to have to break.”
Nonetheless, Nolan is very high on Davis.
“He’s a tough guy mentally,” he said. “He doesn’t get down when things don’t go his way and he doesn’t back down from anything or anybody.”
Indeed. Davis has become known for his trash talk in practices and he even had a verbal run-in one day with veteran guard Larry Allen.
His progress in working with Smith is notable.
“We’re on the same page now,” said the quarterback. “If he sees something in the defense, when he comes back to the huddle, he doesn’t have to say anything. He just looks at me and I know we’re seeing the same thing.”
The 49ers’ offense is still a work in progress. To complement Gore when he returns from his hand injury, they need to have a deep passing threat.
Neither of the projected starters, Arnaz Battle and Darrell Jackson, is a burner. Nolan has two speedsters in reserve, rookie Jason Hill, a former Sacred Heart Cathedral High School star, and free agent Ashley Lelie, who could be used if the Niners go to a three-receiver set.
And they have Vernon Davis. If they send Davis deep down the middle and one of the speed receivers down the sideline, that will give Smith options he’s never had before … and the 49ers’ season could be very interesting.
How many catches will Vernon Davis have?
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