It wasn’t that long ago that Vernon Davis was being called the best big-play tight end in the NFL.
Before the Jets played San Francisco in 2012, New York head coach Rex Ryan certainly was in that camp.
“If you’re not looking at Vernon Davis, what – are you kidding me?” Ryan told the New York Post. “The guy runs a 4.3 (40-yard dash), the best tight end, the No. 1 tight end in football in my opinion. You got that (Rob) Gronkowski kid, but this guy is a 4.3 speed guy.”
In nine NFL seasons, the former No. 1 pick from Maryland in 2006 is a two-time Pro Bowler who’s caught 423 passes for 5,446 yards and 55 touchdowns. Just two seasons ago, in 2013, he had 13 touchdown receptions and matched his career high with an average of 16.3 yards per catch.
As Colin Kaepernick was maturing, Davis was thriving. The Kaepernick-Davis connection was tough for opposing defenses to stop.
But as the 49ers head toward the 2015 season, Davis’ place on the roster suddenly seems suspect.
After his worst season since 2006, Davis could either be out of a job – a salary-cap casualty this offseason – or on the hot seat to prove he can still be a big factor in San Francisco’s offense.
In 14 games in 2014, Davis caught just 26 passes for 245 yards and only two TDs. Plus, only 50 balls were thrown his way, just over 3.5 per game, after catching 52 passes on 84 targets the season before.
In assessing the 49ers needs going into the NFL Combine this week, the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows included tight end as one of the team’s must-upgrade positions.
Plus, Davis' $6.97 million figure against the team’s salary cap this coming season is hefty.
“How the team proceeds with Davis will be interesting,” Barrows wrote. “The 49ers already are bumping against the salary cap and could conclude he isn’t worth his hefty price tag. Or they could reason that his one-year slump was an aberration. At this point he is the most explosive player – the only explosive player? – in their offense.”
However, should the 49ers decide to part ways with Davis, this year’s crop of tight ends in the draft is weak. Plus, backups Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier all have weaknesses.
If the Niners decide to keep Davis, it will be up to new tight ends coach Tony Sparano and new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst to try to get more out of Davis and the rest of the tight end crew.
It seems the chemistry between Kaepernick and Davis remains strong, even if the numbers from 2014 say otherwise. Recently, the two worked together on a Sports Illustrated photo shoot, and they’ve always said good things about one another. Last season, in fact, Davis never criticized Kaepernick or the offensive coaches for his lack of involvement in game plans.
Said Davis: “I don’t go to the coaches and ask them questions like, ‘Why this? Why that?’ I just do my job because at the end of the day, I figure they know what they have in me, as far as contributing to the team. I just stay in my lane and leave it to the coaches.”
In 2015, those coaches will need to figure out a way to get Davis more involved.