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.