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Spotlight: Vernon Davis

posted by on Aug 6th

's thoughts

Our last image of Vernon Davis from 2011 is a breakout playoff run. His receiving yards against the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round (180) set a new San Francisco 49ers record. He also had the game winning touchdown catch. He followed that up with 112 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns in a loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship game. These numbers belie his rather pedestrian 2011 regular season.

After finishing in the top-5 in 2009 and 2010, owners who drafted Davis last year anticipated another elite performance. Instead, he finished 8th under standard scoring rules with less than 800 receiving yards and 6 TDs. Both statistics were his lowest output in three years. Moreover, he vanished down the stretch. From weeks 12 through 16, he had only 1 touchdown and averaged 45.6 receiving yards. Even in PPR leagues, he was not very helpful. Week 15, when he had 6 catches for 76 yards and a TD, is the only game during that stretch where he had more than 10 points in PPR leagues.

Which of these two versions of Davis will we see in 2012? At press time, it seems that owners are approaching Davis with caution. He is most often drafted near the bottom of the second tier of tight ends. In 12-team leagues, Davis is available at the top of the 5th round, amid a pack of tight ends that include Jermichael Finley, Jason Witten, and Aaron Hernandez. His current average draft position is TE5 under standard scoring formats and TE7 under PPR scoring formats.

There may be a perception that Davis is better in non-PPR leagues because his statistics are touchdown driven. That perception would beg the question of whether it is true. Looking at his career numbers, there may be some truth to that theory. Davis had elite finishes in 2009 and 2010, but has never had 1,000 receiving yards in a season. Davis has 7 regular season games with at least 100 yards receiving, all of which occurred from 2009-2011. That feat was accomplished by tight ends 69 times in that same span. Davis is not an explosive yardage machine.

Although there is nothing magical about 8 catches in a game, the feat was accomplished by 30 tight ends in 131 games in 2012. Davis had at least 8 catches in only 4 games in his career. This is not a tight end who can pump up his fantasy numbers in PPR leagues with a lot of catches. If yardage and receptions are not responsible for Davis' fantasy numbers, it follows that touchdowns would be.

Accepting the premise that Davis' fantasy numbers are touchdown driven, predicting his touchdown opportunities will help us determine his upside potential for 2012. When we say touchdown opportunities, we are really talking about red zone targets.

How does Davis stack up against the tight ends being drafted near his average draft position? Let's compare yearly red zone targets over the last three years for some select tight ends. The below chart shows the red zone target numbers for the "top tier" tight ends from 2009-2011, sorted by number of red zone targets:

First Last Year Red Zone Targets
Jimmy Graham 2011 28
Rob Gronkowski 2011 26
Tony Gonzalez 2009 25
Aaron Hernandez 2011 25
Tony Gonzalez 2011 21
Tony Gonzalez 2010 20
Jermichael Finley 2009 17
Jermichael Finley 2011 17
Antonio Gates 2010 15
Rob Gronkowski 2010 15
Jason Witten 2009 15
Jason Witten 2010 15
Vernon Davis 2009 13
Antonio Gates 2011 13
Antonio Gates 2009 13
Vernon Davis 2010 12
Aaron Hernandez 2010 12
Vernon Davis 2011 9
Jimmy Graham 2010 9
Jason Witten 2011 7
Jermichael Finley 2010 2

From the chart above, we can see that Davis' red zone targets per year are pedestrian compared to other top fantasy tight ends.

Moreover, on his own team, Davis is not the first - or even the second - red zone option. From 2009-2011, the 49ers fed their running back in the red zone. Frank Gore had 39, 34, and 61 red zone looks from 2009-2011, compared to Davis' 13, 12, and 9. Where Davis distinguishes himself, however, is in execution. His conversion rate on those 34 red zone targets is an impressive 73.5% catch percentage for 17 touchdowns.

The takeaway here is that, even though Davis maximizes his red zone opportunities, he does not typically receive many of them. With the additions of touchdown specialist running back Brandon Jacobs and wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, the outlook is not positive that Davis will see an increase in either red zone targets or between the 20s targets in 2012.

Though it has only peripheral impact on the fantasy world, it is worth mentioning that Davis is one of the league's best blocking tight ends. Moreover, he has no challengers for his position as the team's pass catching tight end. Therefore, he will be on the field just about every play of the game.


  • No challengers for playing time or tight end targets
  • Consistent and efficient red zone production
  • Attractive average draft position


  • Upside potential is limited to the number of touchdowns he will catch
  • Has never had 1,000 receiving yards in a season
  • Not likely to catch enough passes to improve his per game fantasy numbers in PPR leagues

Final thoughts

Overall, owners should expect more of the same from Davis. There are no changes to the team's offensive philosophy or personnel that is significant enough to expect a change in the number of targets or red zone looks that Davis will receive.

Quotations from the message board thread

To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there), click here.

butcher boy said:

The 49ers have added many parts to their offense and it's inevitable that some of Vernon's balls will go to other guys. Vernon is an excellent blocker, and it would be foolish of the 49ers not to take advantage of this and utilize the receiving talents that they now have that they didn't before.

TheDirtyWord said:

My first inclination when considering Davis' outlook was to be pessimistic. After all, despite a legitimate career resurgence, Alex Smith averaged less than 200 yards/game in 2011. Couple that with the fact that the receiving corps added two legitimate weapons in Randy Moss and Mario Manningham - not to mention a quiet mini-breakthrough season from Michael Crabtree...and it would seem that SF would not be a place to go for passing game production. If you add in 1st round pick A.J. Jenkins...that's even more support.

But it did get me to thinking. Harbaugh, prior to joining SF, built his major D-1 career essentially on the back on Andrew Luck. Stanford, a mere afterthought, in the Pac-10 (12 now), became a powerful force in a conference that boasted more athletically focused institutions like USC & Orregon. This off-season...the appearance was that Harbaugh made a strong play for Peyton Manning. And even in missing out...the QB he does have really came along in a big way in 2011. Smith had some big moments - none bigger than when he went toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and came out on top. That was, and remains, a performance that QB reputations and respect get built on.

So When you go back and look at SF last year, what you see is that Smith was not asked to put the ball in the air much; he averaged 27.8 pass attempts/game. Was this due to Smith alone, and the 49ers desire to not rely on his arm for offensive success? The 3rd leading receiver for SF in 2011 was Kyle Williams, a 2nd year player who was a 6th round selection in 2010. The expected veteran presence at WR they'd hoped to reap last year in Braylon Edwards never materialized. So for the most part - Smith had but 1 WR target he could rely on...and Davis.

My point is that it was justifiable that SF's passing numbers were so low, but that may have been more a function of the assets around Smith versus Smith himself. The fact is that Smith threw but 5 INT's in 445 pass attempts yet was able to produce a respectable 7.1 YPA. So with improved weapons around Smith - a seeming forthcoming reduction on the 49ers reliance on Frank Gore to be their bellcow, perhaps Alex Smith is on the cusp of a true FF breakthrough? Cause IMO, that is the one factor keeping folks from jumping on Davis' bandwagon.

Davis beasted in his two playoff games. He was literally unstoppable. With a significant upgrade in talent around him, teams that focus on stopping Davis will be more likely to pay a price for that than they would have been last year. With that said, Davis's skillset is so immense that even significant defensive attention may not be enough to limit his production. But I may be swimming against the current here a bit in thinking that the SF passing game is about to blossom in 2012 and Davis will be a primary beneficiary of that. However, he won't be putting up Gronkowski/Graham numbers because Smith isn't moving up into the 5000 category. But threatening the 4000 level is certainly within the realm of reason. And as SF's offense stabilized in 2011, their reliance on Davis in the passing game grew. Taking into account all 18 games, Davis's targets/game increased from 4.7 during the first half of the season to 7.6 during its second half. At 7 targets/game with a catch rate of around 70% - that's 78 receptions and I suspect that is certainly within Davis's grasp.

We Tigers said:

Got burned on Davis last year, and not eager to get back on the train. I can't make a good case for him as TE4 in the 5th/6th round, where he currently resides.

1. 49ers are abysmal in the red zone. They have room to improve, but their defense is good enough that they can play very conservative on the opponent's side of the field and still win.

2. Davis is a phenomenal blocker and deployed that way often, sometimes more or less for an entire game. Too many Sundays with 2-3 total targets. If you have him going on a day the 9ers decide to run all day and happily punt from the 45, you're in trouble.

Bottom line: his year end stats will look pretty good--I'm sure he'll grade out in the top 10 TE scorers--but his game to game volatility is too dangerous for his draft price.

Ghost of Bill Walsh said:

The most critical point for the SF passing game is significant improvement on 3rd downs & in the Redzone otherwise Davis' numbers may mirror last year. Even with Moss,Manningham & Jenkins those two areas I mentioned MUST improve or they will have trouble if they make the playoffs. Harbaugh has given Smith a year to settle in so he may loosen the reins a bit and see how he does. I think you will see an uptick in passing attempts to try and keep Gore healthy. They have players now to accomplish that. Are the 49ers gonna be a passing team all year? No, but Harbaugh is gonna increase the passing game in an effort to put points on the board. They're not going to be able to put up 21 points all the time and win. If they can start scoring better that'll help the defense which is already pretty good. Given all that I don't think Davis' numbers is gonna take a big jump but he is too talented to ignore.

Iwannabeacowboybaby! said:

Davis proved his worth last year in the playoffs. He is one of the core reasons why SF went as far as they did last year and he won't just drop off the face of the Earth because some supposed new talent is in town. I think Davis is in for a solid season and will mesh with the offense right from the beginning.

Vernon Davis projections

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