Vernon Davis and the Bay Area never really got past formal introductions last year. His rookie season with the 49ers offered only a scant impression of what he can do and a misguided impression about who he is. Start with the name. Everybody here calls him Vernon, when that's just a birth-certificate space filler to the people who know him best.
"My whole family calls me Duke," he said after a voluntary team practice Friday. "No one calls me Vernon."
Within minutes of this comment, coach Mike Nolan walked by and gave Davis a hearty nod, "Doing better, Vernon. Way to go, keep it up."
"Appreciate it, coach," he replied.
The formalities will continue for awhile. Nicknames catch on when a player does, and those with implications of nobility take even longer to stick. So Davis is a Duke-in-waiting -- intensely active waiting.
This is the time for him to make good on the promise that turned him into the sixth pick of the 2006 NFL draft. If he is to become another Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, a tight end with a wideout's taste for the deep pass, this season is his best chance to prove it.
Davis is healthy, and he appears to have lost the fogginess endemic to NFL rookies. Meanwhile, the 49ers have lost the steady hands and temperament of Eric Johnson to free agency. They don't have a wide receiver with the credentials to demand the ball whenever it goes airborne. And the quarterback, who three years ago was playing in a college offense that didn't use a tight end, has become rather fond of throwing in Davis' direction in these recent practices.
At the end of the week, injuries prevented the top three wideouts on the team from practicing, so that might have accounted for Alex Smith's emphasis on the tight end. But he and Davis seem to have developed a rapport in the last couple of months, showing up for offseason workouts at the team headquarters.
"A lot of times when the quarterback delivers the ball, that lets you know where his confidence is," Nolan explained.
Nolan has been impressed with Davis this offseason. He saw a new maturity in him, a growing commitment to the job. As a young prospect, Davis presented a slightly different challenge from Smith and Frank Gore, who arrived with question marks on their bios. Davis showed up with "too good to be true" stamped on his forehead.
His speed, explosive power and ripped physique pushed him toward the top of his class in the draft, but they also suggested that he might take himself more seriously than he did the game. It has happened many times before; especially gifted prospects -- accustomed to dominating opponents in college -- couldn't adapt to the NFL, where raw talent rarely carries a player for long. The persistence required to learn an NFL system, especially on offense, eluded them. They didn't need patience before. The game always came to them.
Davis knows exactly how talented he is, yet to his credit, he doesn't pretend that he arrived in the NFL as a finished product. And after missing six games because of a broken leg last year, he could have assumed that good health was all he needed for a breakout season. He didn't. He set out to make improvements in the offseason, and both he and Nolan believe that he succeeded. He is particularly proud of upgrading his route-running skills.
"I know I have to outsmart the defense, and once I do that, my athletic ability can take over," he said, "and I'll make things a lot easier on myself."
Nolan said he had noticed Davis acquiring a more fluid approach to the routes. "The art of running a route is much like a dance, and in a better dancer, it obviously shows," he said.
As it happens, Davis has something of an artistic streak. He took up studio art as a major as a sophomore at Maryland, and while he won't claim to be the next Damien Hirst (or even Omar Vizquel), he still dabbles in painting. He did a picture of a woman holding a man last winter, and the NFL Players Association chose it for a "Smocks and Jocks" exhibit at the Super Bowl. In the offseason, he was one of several athletes chosen to design a ticket to a NASCAR event.
His body appears to be a favorite canvas, covered in tattoos that he helped design. The most recent is a picture of his grandparents, Adaline and Lynwood Smith -- that covered a large patch of the left side of his chest. His grandmother's name sweeps down his left forearm. "They're raising my four little sisters," he said, before rattling off the girls' ages, 10, 11, 12 and 18. He also has a younger brother, Vontae, who is a standout defensive back at the University of Illinois.
"Actually, he's the man," Davis said proudly.
He beams when he talks about the family back East, who call him Duke because his father went by the same name. A season full of fluid routes could lead him back to his lifelong identity, rejoining the aristocracy through meritocracy.
Fantasy Football: "Luck is where preparation meets opportunity"
I think Davis is being a little overrated this season, especially in redraft leagues. I see the guy going in the same range as Shockey and Heap, when in reality he should go a few rounds later with the Cooleys and the Wittens of the world. Don't get me wrong, I think Davis will eventually become a great player, but I do think it is going to take a couple seasons before he reaches maturity.
Last season Davis battled injuries, everyone knows that. But when he was healthy he was not playing at a high level. He had no problems getting open, but he had a major case of the dropsies. And he also made a lot of bonehead misktakes running his routes. I kept a close eye on him during the games he played at home and watched him cut off a lot of his routes right into defenders, and saw him break routes downfield when Alex Smith was rolling away from him. Alex Smith's playing style from last season doesn't necessarily favor the TE. Smith likes to roll out of the pocket a lot and he ends up passing the ball either to the short third of the field or well outside the hashmarks outside of Davis' normal range.
I think 2007 will be a work in progress for Davis and the real breakthroughs won't come into 2008. Norv Turner is a bigtime loss for our offense overall, and even then I think it will take Smith and Davis both some more time developing their games to the point where Davis is a stud TE. Verdict: Solid 8th-10th round TE, reach in the 6th.
The guy you want to grab this year that gives tremendous value is Kellen Winslow. He's an idiot but he caught 89 balls for 875 yards. I expect his TDs to atleast double this year. I believe he led TEs in catches by a wide margin and was only 2nd to Gates in yardage. In a PPR league he's an outright steal. He's going in the 6th or 7th rounds these days in 10 teamers but he's one of the last TEs taken before the huge drop off. I started targeting VD in drafts but have switched to Winslow because he's much better value. I think I got him in the 8th a couple times today.
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The thing I'm worried about with Kellen Winslow is health. The guy is obviously one of the unique and talented TEs in today's game, but he is right up there with Eric Johnson for staying healthy. Breaking down his injuries, I think he has now had 2 ACLs, a staph infection, and this offseason he had microfracture knee surgery which he is still recovering from. In the past I would be much more worried about his prospects for the 2007 season due to the most recent surgery, but with medical science nowadays it is not so troubling. Still, KEllen Winslow seems to be made of glass and is definitely one of the TEs with a higher probability to miss a lot of time.
Kensat30 wrote:I think Davis is being a little overrated this season, especially in redraft leagues. I see the guy going in the same range as Shockey and Heap, when in reality he should go a few rounds later with the Cooleys and the Wittens of the world.
That hasn't been my experience so far. in the Cafe Early Mock with Rookies and Cafeholics draft, Vernon Davis was taken with the 8.08 and 7.08 pick respectively, and was the 8th TE and 7th TE taken, well after Todd Heap and Jeremy Shockey. Davis is a man-beast, and when all is said and done I believe he will be the 2nd best TE in fantasy football at the end of this season, next to Gates. If anything, he is being underrated, but that's to every savvy fantasy owner's gain.