Reconsidering Vernon Davis

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By John Paulsen (Senior Editor) on May 22, 2013

John was named FantasyPros Most Accurate Expert of 2010, was runner-up in 2011 and finished 4th in 2012 for in-season rankings accuracy. He also won the Fantasy Sports Trade Association award in 2011 for the most accurate preseason rankings. Follow John on Twitter: @4for4_John.

Raise your hand if you've ever been burned by Vernon Davis.

I'm having difficulty typing since both my hands are in the air. If you would have asked me this morning whether I'd be drafting Davis in 2013, I would have told you that the chances that he'd be available where I was willing to take him (~10th round) are about slim to none, and slim was leaving town. This morning, I couldn't trust that the 49ers would give him the necessary targets to justify his #5 TE ADP.

Now, after word broke about Michael Crabtree's torn Achilles, it's time to reconsider Mr. Vernon Davis.

 

What do we know about him?

- He's 29 years old.

- In standard scoring formats, he was the #1 TE in 2009 and #3 in 2010. That ranking fell to #8 in 2011 and all the way to #15 in 2012.

- He has a tendency to come up big in the playoffs. (He averaged 4.4-109-1.0 in five playoff games in 2011 and 2012. Wowsers.)

- His targets have decreased from 8.1 in 2009 to 5.8 in both 2010 and 2011 to 4.4 in 2012 (including the postseason).

- In 2012, he was targeted more by Alex Smith (5.1 per game) than by Colin Kaepernick (3.9), though Kaepernick did lean on him in the playoffs (11-210-1 combined in NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl).

 

Has he suddenly forgotten how to get open, or how to produce once he has the ball? Probably not. Take a look at this table:

 

Name Targets FP (std) FP/T Rank
Rob Gronkowski 203 379.7 1.87 1
Scott Chandler 120 168.0 1.40 2
Antonio Gates 168 215.6 1.28 3
Vernon Davis 156 200.0 1.28 4
Jimmy Graham 283 349.2 1.23 5
Heath Miller 173 204.7 1.18 6
Jermichael Finley 178 203.4 1.14 7
Anthony Fasano 122 138.3 1.13 8
Tony Gonzalez 240 270.5 1.13 9
Dennis Pitta 150 167.4 1.12 10
Kyle Rudolph 132 146.2 1.11 11
Jared Cook 154 170.2 1.11 12
Fred Davis 118 129.8 1.10 13
Aaron Hernandez 196 211.3 1.08 14
Jermaine Gresham 187 199.3 1.07 15
Owen Daniels 188 193.3 1.03 16
Dustin Keller 151 155.2 1.03 17
Greg Olsen 193 198.3 1.03 18
Tony Scheffler 125 127.1 1.02 19
Brent Celek 186 185.5 1.00 20
Jason Witten 264 246.1 0.93 21
Martellus Bennett 115 107.0 0.93 22
Lance Kendricks 121 111.1 0.92 23
Brandon Myers 132 119.7 0.91 24
Ed Dickson 122 105.3 0.86 25
Dallas Clark 140 114.7 0.82 26
Brandon Pettigrew 227 182.2 0.80 27
Ben Watson 153 121.1 0.79 28
Jacob Tamme 116 91.2 0.79 29
Marcedes Lewis 162 124.0 0.77 30
Kellen Winslow 121 89.5 0.74 31

 

Over the past two years, 31 still-active tight ends have garnered at least 100 total targets. Davis ranks 4th in fantasy points per target (1.28 FP/T), which is one of my favorite measures of productivity. That equals Antonio Gates and ranks ahead of Jimmy Graham, Tony Gonzalez and Aaron Hernandez. In 2009 and 2010 (when Davis finished #1 and #3, respectively), he averaged 1.39 FP/T.

So the production is still there, but the targets aren't. Some of this can be attributed to the arrival of Crabtree, who overtook Davis in average targets starting in 2010, and hasn't looked back.

Certainly the 49ers could lean on their receiving corps to pick up Crabtree's slack. Anquan Boldin figures to see WR1 targets, while Mario Manningham could be a viable WR2 if his knee is good to go. Second-year man A.J. Jenkins (who has reportedly bulked up), return specialist Kyle Williams and rookie Quinton Patton will also be in the mix.

But intuitively it would make a lot of sense for the 49ers to feature Davis, who is arguably their biggest and best weapon in the receiving game.

Take a look at what he's been able to do in the 28 games over the last two seasons when he's seen at least three targets.

 

 

Year Week Opp Score Rec Tgt Yds TD
2011 1 SEA W 33-17 5 6 47 0
2011 3 @ CIN W 13-8 8 9 114 0
2011 4 @ PHI W 24-23 4 6 45 1
2011 5 TAM W 48-3 3 3 39 2
2011 8 CLE W 20-10 3 3 27 0
2011 9 @ WAS W 19-11 4 7 41 0
2011 10 NYG W 27-20 3 4 40 1
2011 11 ARI W 23-7 5 10 67 1
2011 12 @ BAL L 6-16 4 5 38 0
2011 13 STL W 26-0 5 8 32 0
2011 14 @ ARI L 19-21 1 3 32 0
2011 15 PIT W 20-3 6 10 72 1
2011 16 @ SEA W 19-17 4 8 54 0
2011 17 @ STL W 34-27 8 9 118 0
2011 Div NOR W 36-32 7 7 180 2
2011 NFC NYG L 17-20 3 3 112 2
2012 1 @ GNB W 30-22 3 5 43 1
2012 2 DET W 27-19 5 7 73 2
2012 3 @ MIN L 13-24 5 8 53 1
2012 5 BUF W 45-3 5 7 106 0
2012 6 NYG L 3-26 3 5 37 0
2012 10 STL T 24-24 4 5 30 0
2012 11 CHI W 32-7 6 8 83 1
2012 13 @ STL L 13-16 2 3 15 0
2012 15 @ NWE W 41-34 1 3 10 0
2012 Div GNB W 45-31 1 5 44 0
2012 NFC @ ATL W 28-24 5 6 106 1
2012 SB BAL L 31-34 6 8 104 0
Average       4.3 6.1 62.9 0.57

 

 

So that's an average of 4.3 catches on 6.1 targets for 63 yards and 0.57 TD per game. Those are fantasy TE3 numbers per our 2013 projections. His FP/T in these 28 games was an eye-popping 1.59.

Is expecting him to see 6.1 T/G a reasonable assumption? I expect it is. He averaged 5.8 T/G in 2010 and 2011 and that was with a healthy Crabtree. Before Crabtree, he averaged 8.1 T/G. And while Boldin is still a very good receiver, he's no Crabtree at this point in his career.

 

Do I feel certain in recommending him as a Top 2-3 TE? Hell no. There is still the matter of the 49ers' curious usage of Davis, but the gamble here is that they no longer have any choice. Vernon Davis is not a weapon to be unleashed in the playoffs -- the 49ers are going to need his playmaking to win games in the regular season as well.

Filed Under: 2013, Preseason