By Jerrell Richardson
When the 49ers drafted Vernon Davis with the 6th overall pick in 2006, they had high hopes for the Maryland standout. While he has had some maturity issues, Davis has made more than his fair share of plays over the years, and numbers wise stacks up against any tight end in the league not named Jimmy Graham. However the bottom line is that he is not the player he once was, nor does he create the same mismatches he once did. Part of it is injuries, and part of it is the 49ers change at the quarterback position, but there is no way around the fact that Vernon Davis is a player the team needs to address immediately, and make sure that they are putting the players on the field that give San Francisco the best chance to win.
Last season, Davis’ stats were impressive for the most part. He caught 53 balls, which is not something to write home about, but his 850 yards and 13 touchdowns is. His yards ranked him 5th amongst tight ends, and his touchdown total was 3rd in the league, not just his position. However this was a significant jump from the year before when he caught 41 passes for only 548 yards and 5 touchdowns in one more game, and even 2011 when he posted 67 catches, 792 yards and 6 touchdowns. So while the thought is that Davis is still capable of taking over a game, sadly this is not the case.
Last year San Francisco had no depth at the wide receiver position, and when Michael Crabtree went down with an injury, the team was forced to use the speedy Davis out wide. This allowed him to compile receiver type numbers for a good part of the 2013 season and explain the increase in his numbers. However, even before Crabtree’s return in week 13 last season, Davis had already seen his production begin to tail off. He peaked week 6 against Arizona when he had a career day, catching 8 balls for 180 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Since that game, Davis has been average at best. His best performance, from that game until today was a 5 catch, 79 yard game against the Buccaneers in week 13 last year. Even that game though his numbers are misleading as the bulk of his day was a 52-yard touchdown catch. Take away this game, and Davis has not had a single game where he has had more than 4 receptions in over a year.
Now let’s keep things in their proper place. 4 catches a game is not bad, but not a player whom should be a major focus of the offensive game plan. So how did he find himself as a player who the team feels is a major weapon? Alex Smith.
With Smith under center the game plan was short underneath throws which is a tight ends dream situation. It was this system that allowed Davis to flourish for two seasons. It also didn’t hurt that the team did not have the same level of talent they currently possess at the wide receiver position.
In 2009, after three mediocre seasons, Davis peaked with a 78 catch, 965 yard and 13 touchdown season, but since then has seen a decrease every year. With the more explosive arm of Kaepernick running the show, it has forced Davis to make catches down the field, and sure handed is not an adjective used to describe Davis. The past few weeks Davis has dropped several routine catches, and over the years has never been confused with a great pure catcher.
So what does all this mean? It doesn’t mean that the team needs to trade, cut or release Davis. It simply means that they need to evaluate his position. At one point this was not even a second thought, but clearly is something that needs to be addressed.
Davis is coming off an injury and admitted that he is not quite 100%. As his role in the offense has diminished, if not 100%, there should be a strong consideration to sit him or at least share the duties. The past two games have seen the offense go out of its way to try and get him the ball, resulting in drops and/or stalled offensive drives.
It’s best for him and the team to let him get healthy, as unlike in the past, not only does the team have other options in the passing game, but they have other options at his position. It’s not Vance McDonald though who the team should turn to in passing downs, its Derek Carrier. When both tight ends went down Carrier showed the ability to make some plays. The only thing working against Carrier is his experience. He doesn’t have the experience of Davis or the level of chemistry between Davis and Kaepernick so it makes Carrier a liability on the field. This is something that can be addressed now in practice though if the team wanted to take this direction.
Due to his god given talents, Davis is still capable of a big statistical game, but these will now be few and far between. With so many talented receivers on the team this is not necessarily a bad thing though, as long as the team and player recognize it and not continue to try and force him the ball, the offense will become harder to defend. This works in the tight ends favor eventually teams will forget about him and focus on other weapons.
As with most teams, San Francisco needs to get back to the tight end as a safety valve and not the first read. In cases when they are in obvious passing downs, it makes better sense to put in Carrier, at least until Davis is 100%. While he might not be happy with this move, it would allow Davis to put a better product on the field and on film as he is doing nobody a favor with the way he has played this season. At the end of the season, if the team takes the time now to evaluate their options at the position they will be able to determine if Davis is their best option, if it’s Carrier, or neither.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.