Broncos better hope they’re getting 2013 version of Vernon Davis

Denver needs an upgrade at TE. Trade acquisition Vernon Davis will need to return to his 2013 form for that to happen.

| 12 months ago
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Broncos better hope they’re getting 2013 version of Vernon Davis

In what qualifies as a blockbuster trade in an NFL that doesn’t see many player swaps at any time, much less during the season, the San Francisco 49ers have sent tight end Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos. In exchange, the 49ers are getting back what amounts to a sixth-round pick.

This is the type of deal that sounds good on the surface for Denver—tight end has been a problem for them this season, with Julius Thomas now on the Jaguars’ roster, and Davis was, at one time, one of the best tight ends in the league—but isn’t as impressive once you dig a little deeper.

If Denver gets the 2013 version of Davis, this is a great move. If he plays at the same level he has since the start of 2014, then it won’t amount to much.

In 2014, Davis earned the fifth-worst grade (No. 63 out of 67 qualifiers) among NFL tight ends. He’s been slightly better this season, ranking No. 42, but he has still graded negatively in every facet of the game. Those assuming he’s going to have a big impact on Denver’s passing game, similar to what Thomas did during his time with the team, could be disappointed. In PFF’s yards per route run metric, which measures a pass-catcher’s efficiency and explosiveness, Davis ranks just No. 26 out of 37 tight ends this season, with a 1.11 average.

It is understandable why the Broncos would bet on Davis’ upside, however. Even though Davis hasn’t been great this season, he has still played better than Denver starting tight end Owen Daniels (Davis’ PFF grade of 65.0 tops the 61.6 posted by Daniels). Backup Virgil Green actually ranks No. 19 with a 73.7 grade, but has done so in a part-time role. If Davis closes the gap between his 2014-15 performance and his 2013 performance now that he’s motivated by going from one of the league’s more dysfunctional situations to a Super Bowl contender, then he is worth the limited cost of a sixth-round pick.

That’s especially the case given Denver’s closing Super Bowl window. As colleague Sam Monson wrote Monday, this Broncos defense is the best in the NFL this season and setting an all-time pace, which has fueled the team’s undefeated start, despite some surprisingly poor play from quarterback Peyton Manning (he ranks just 22nd in our QB grades). Whether you view Manning’s struggles as just a slow start to the season under a new offense, with head coach Gary Kubiak at the helm, or as evidence that Manning’s play has finally declined after a remarkable Hall of Fame career, it’s clear that Manning and the Broncos don’t have many shots at a Super Bowl title left—and 2015 could very well prove to be their last chance.

If Davis can provide a lift to an offense that hasn’t yet played up to its usual standards, this deal will prove to have been well worth it. The Broncos had just better hope the decline in Davis’ play has been, at least in part, due to his surroundings and a lack of motivation, and not a deterioration in ability from his 2013 peak.

| Editor-in-Chief

Jeff is the Editor-in-Chief of PFF, and a regular contributor to The Washington Post's NFL coverage. He previously worked as the editor for ESPN Insider's NFL, Fantasy, and College Football coverage.

  • anon76returns

    Seems like a pretty low risk gamble to me. I’m a consistent preacher of hoarding draft picks, but the Broncos should have 2 6th round picks in 2016 (their original plus a comp pick for Pot Roast) to go with what should be 9 other picks (5 originals, 1 trade with Balt, two 4th round comps for JT/Orlando, and a 7th for Tamme). In Zaire Anderson, Kapri Bibbs, and Dillon Day they also have 3 practice squad players ready to step into backup roles for guys that will be departing in free agency, so giving up a 6th doesn’t hurt much even if Davis remains a dud (though his $2.5M salary would be missed when trying to lock up Malik/Von/Osweiller).

    • broncodano

      Broncos are fighting to keep talent on the roster, one sixth round pick matters little.

      rock on anon

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  • Here to Learn

    How can you say Denver’s Super Bowl window is closing? This will probably be Peyton’s last year but when he’s gone the Broncos will still be stacked. Whoever Broncos QB is next year will have a good chance to win a Super Bowl.

    • anon76returns

      I’m not so sure this is Manning’s last year, certainly not if he has many more displays like last night. He’s the type of guy who if he puts his signature down on a contract he’s more than likely to play it out, and he’s still got one year left.
      But QB is certainly the most important position on the field, and not knowing who will be the next Broncos QB (I hope for Brock, but who knows), much less how well he can marshall the troops means that the Broncos shouldn’t be counting up their post-Manning Lombardis just yet.
      The stacking of the team next year is still far less than certain. I hope that D Ware comes back, but that might not be the case. I think Wolfe and Trevathan will probably be gone, and Von & Malik will have fairly steep asking prices. In addition, Mathis and A Smith are both 1 year rentals, Hillman will be an UFA, and both B Marsh and CJ will be RFAs. That’s a LOT of talent potentially leaving the team next year.

      • larry mckinney

        DeMarcus will either retire or play for the Broncos next year. He’s not a potential FA.

        • anon76returns

          There’s been a lot of talk on whether or not Ware will be cut for cap space, given the rise of Barrett and to a lesser extent Ray and McCray. I’ve pointed out in the past that Elway has never cut a guy when the performance level was up to expectations (and I think Ware’s performance is probably exceeding expectations thus far), but it still remains a possibility that Ware is cut because the Broncos need the cap space ($10M would be useful in keeping Von/Malik/QB of future) and because the drop off in talent to the next guy won’t be that steep.

    • Jim Winslow

      yeah it is only closing for peyton, That bronco team will still top the league without him.

      • larry mckinney

        Jim, see above.

        • Jim Winslow

          yeah I understand it will expensive, but they already locked up some of their best players, and they could free money when peyton goes. That team will still be very good, but yeah they definitely lose some key players.

    • Bill Doerr

      That is the most idiotic statement I have ever read ….. Coming from an Arizona Cardinals fan ( We ran the gambit of QBs post Warner till we found Palmer) you absolutely must have a good QB to be a Super-Bowl contender no matter how stacked your team is . I have seen far to many piss poor QBs both in AZ and around the NFL sink really complete teams in my 30 years on our planet Earth. If Manning leaves , and say Osweiler faulters , Denver might make it to the post season but will be quickly eliminated. In todays NFL , YOU MUST BE ABLE TO THROW THE BALL !!!! If you cannot , your SOL

      • Here to Learn

        First off, welcome to the internet. If that’s the most idiotic thing you’very ever read you clearly having been using it very long. When I say whoever is the Broncos next QB, part of what’s baked into that is faith in Elway to find the right guy (maybe Drew Brees) to lead this team after Peyton retires. With an all-time great defense this team could win a Super Bowl with a Trent Diller type QB. And if it weren’t for Seattle’s defense, Russell Wilson wouldn’t be considered a great QB, as he is by many people which I don’t quite understand. Throw Wilson on a mediocre team and they might not sniff the playoffs.

        • larry mckinney

          Here to Learn: Temper your view when you get a handle on how much the Broncos will need to pony up to retain free agents Von Miller, Aqib Talib, Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Antonio Smith, David Bruton, Derek Wolfe, Ronnie Hillman, Omar Bolden, Jordan Norwood, C.J. Anderson and Brandon Marshall.

          Last year’s losses hurt, but they seem to be overcoming them so far. Next year, FA departures will be a much bigger problem for Elway, especially if those potential FAs get a ring this year. After the ring, it will be all, completely, and only about the money.

          Thinking next year’s Broncos will look substantially different than this year’s team. If Manning chooses to play next year (he won’t if they win the SB this year) his cap hit will be toxic.

          • Drew

            Talib isn’t a FA…

          • Here to Learn

            Agree with your premise that Broncos will have a lot of competition for some of their free agents, but I think you got a little carried away on your list. Omar Bolden and Jordan Norwood? These are not guys I’m worried about the Broncos losing. I actually like Norwood so it’d be nice if we could keep him for cheap, but if he gets a better deal elsewhere oh well. Elway is good at finding guys like Antonio Smith on the cheap so a few of the other guys you mentioned can be replaced too. We probably will lose a couple difference makers though.

  • Jim Winslow

    I think its a waste of a sixth round pick.

    • larry mckinney

      Or two.

      • E. Halsey Miles

        It’s only one, really; it’s a Denver 6th rounder for a SF 7th rounder in 2016 and Davis for a 2017 6th rounder.

        Denver’s got a 99% chance of being in the playoffs. Even if they’re one and done, the earliest they’re going to pick is 24. The Niners on the other hand, aren’t likely to pick after 8. So worst case it’s moving only 15 or so spots (not including however many 6th round comp picks get out there). And at that stage of the draft, moving 15 or so spots isn’t really that big of a deal.

        Plus, local Denver guys are saying that if they doesn’t resign Davis after this year, they’ll get a compensatory pick to boot. So again, probably moving down, but still a pick.

        • larry mckinney

          Davis would need to be signed by another team after 2015 in order for Denver to gain a compensatory pick. Likely a 7th rounder. I am sure they are hoping the Ohio State draftee, injured this year, will advance on the depth chart next year. Don’t know about any cap matters that Davis would affect.

          • E. Halsey Miles

            VD not sign with another team? Short of terrible injury someone will put him on a roster next season. There’s too much upside not to at least take the risk, even if he flames out in Denver. If THAT chance flames out, then all bets are off, but a player like him will always get a couple of chances.

  • Justin Blalock

    This season has been the first time since pre Dallas Clark the better part of a decade ago that Peyton has been without a reliable TE pass-catcher. Peyton has been missing the option this year.

    The potential gain for the offense is well worth the objectively minimal risk. The players acquired via 6th round picks routinely get cut by teams the next year and sometimes even year one. They aren’t valuable assets.