Commentary

Vernon Davis at head of class

On a team full of highly rated offensive players, 49ers tight end is top talent

Originally Published: August 29, 2013
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Look at the list. No other team comes close to putting as many players on ESPN's list of the top 100 offensive players in the NFL as the San Francisco 49ers. Denver, Atlanta, New England, New Orleans and Seattle all have offensive weapons. All have playmakers. But the Niners have more. Way more.

Tight end Vernon Davis is the best of them all.

Of the nine 49ers to make the list -- four more than the Broncos, Falcons, Patriots, Saints and Seahawks, who rank second with five apiece -- Davis checks in at No. 18. He is joined by four-fifths of the Niners' offensive line (tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis, guard Mike Iupati and center Jonathan Goodwin), two receivers (the injured Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin), running back Frank Gore and quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

[+] EnlargeVernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertColin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis were slow to form an on-field connection last season, but the 49ers' passing game will rely heavily on the combo in 2013.

That's why San Francisco is the front-runner in the NFC to return to the Super Bowl. That's why they are widely viewed as one of the handful of teams with a legitimate shot at winning the Super Bowl. Add in the six players to make the top 100 defensive players list, and San Francisco, at least according to our expert panel, has more quality players than any team in the league.

As important as Kaepernick is to the Niners' success, the offense could ill afford to lose Davis. He is versatile, reliable, smart and experienced. He is a tight end who, for the first time this season, will also play wide receiver. He can line up in the slot but also in the backfield and out wide.

Jim Harbaugh thinks so much of Davis that, during this training camp, he has had Davis learn four positions. It's not just that Davis is up to the challenge. He is. But with injuries to Crabtree and Mario Manningham and little experience at wide receiver other than Boldin, San Francisco needs Davis like never before.

"They've put a lot more on my back," Davis told me recently. "I like it. It's fun. It's cool. You know, I'm here to serve my purpose, and my purpose is to win. I'm not here to receive individual statistics. I'm not here to get accolades. I'm here to help this team win. That's my main focus."

On a team stocked with talent, Davis can best do that by catching the football, which is why Harbaugh is trying to find different ways to utilize him. Alex Smith found Davis frequently last season. In the first 8½ games before he suffered a concussion and subsequently lost his starting job to Kaepernick, Smith completed 26 passes to Davis for 380 yards, including a five-catch, 106-yard performance in a 45-3 win over Buffalo in Week 5.

Davis's production didn't dip until after Kaepernick's first start in Week 11 against Chicago. In that game, a 32-7 win over the Bears, Kaepernick found Davis six times for 83 yards and a touchdown. It was Davis's last touchdown reception of the regular season.

In San Francisco's final six games, Davis had six catches for 61 yards. This for a player who caught 78 passes in 2009 and twice in his career came close to topping 1,000 yards receiving for a season.

Kaepernick and the Niners corrected things in the postseason. Kaepernick found Davis five times for 106 yards and a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game against Atlanta. He then found Davis six times for 104 yards in the Super Bowl loss to Baltimore.

Davis is valuable. It just took Kaepernick time to adjust.

It took Davis about a week to get over the Super Bowl, he said. It was tough, yes, especially to come so close and then lose by three points when the Niners couldn't punch the ball into the end zone.

"After a week, I said to myself, 'If we get another opportunity, it's all about life. It's all about next,'" Davis said. "The word next is very powerful. With next, we have another opportunity. With next, we have another opportunity to compete and get back to that point."

Returning to the Super Bowl a season after being there is one of sports' most difficult feats. Teams let down. Teams turn over. But in Harbaugh's third San Francisco team, Davis sees that he is surrounded by playmakers on both sides of the ball. The offense is dynamic, with Kaepernick a dual threat and Gore still grinding along. The defense is nasty, with as good of a front seven as there is in the league and a defensive back -- safety Donte Whitner -- who also cracked the top-100 list.

So it is easy to be optimistic and to believe.

"Oh yeah," Davis said. "I'm confident in this team, the players, the talent. We have a lot of guys here that are willing to make sacrifices and step up to the plate and do what we have to do to advance. That's what I'm most excited about.

"I think we have something special. I'm excited about the opportunity to get a chance to compete to go back to the Super Bowl again."

The Niners have the talent, and no piece is more important than their versatile tight end.

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