After the rookies enjoyed a brief stint in ruling the OTA roost in San Francisco, the 49ers veterans joined camp this week to take over the first team reps they have rightfully earned. Coach Harbaugh immediately shifted the focus of practices to the red zone–a trouble area for the offense last season–by dedicating 35-40 percent of the workouts toward getting the ball across the goal line. Surprisingly, so far the team has been without one of their key red zone receivers as 49ers tight end Vernon Davis has been missing in action.
Davis, the sixth overall draft selection back in 2006, is reportedly choosing to skip out on OTAs to showcase his displeasure with his current contract–essentially, he wants more money, or at least more guaranteed money. The problem is that where Davis is still under contract, there are other key players whose contracts expire following the upcoming season, and so the pro bowler may be standing at the back of a very long line. First San Francisco must decide if he is deserving of a bigger contract, and if they do, then they will see what they can do work something out. However, if they feel that there are other players that are much more valuable at this stage, such as quarterback Colin Kaepernick for instance, then Davis may be putting himself in the dog house for a whole lot of nothing. If there is anything the football community has learned in the past few seasons, it is that pro bowl talent can become expendable in the bay area.
There is no question that for the past eight seasons, Davis has been the most steady, and at times in his career, the only weapon in the Niners passing attack. His combination of size, speed and athleticism creates match up nightmares for defenses in coverage, and his much-improved skill as a run blocker has transformed him into possibly the best all-around tight end in pro football. He is also the only player at his position to ever record two seasons with 12 or more touchdown receptions in NFL history, despite never playing with the luxury of an elite passer. Number 85 is an integral part of the Niners offense, and he certainly has the resume to push for more dollars, but is there actual merit to Davis postulating for a new deal, or is this another example of an athlete trying to get all he can while the getting is good?
The two-time pro bowler’s base salary for this season ranks seventh among tight ends at $4.7 million, but his average salary ranks second at $7.35 million, and, his current contract–which still has this upcoming season and the next remaining–is the third highest among tight ends in the NFL–only Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten have larger contracts. However, taking it one step further by looking over career earnings among active tight ends, nobody has made more money than Davis, in fact, the next closest is former All-Pro Dallas Clark with almost $3 million less, but also with three more seasons played. So it is not as if the 49ers have kept a tight wallet with their superstar because over the span of his eight seasons he has been paid as the best tight end in football.
From a player’s perspective it is reasonable that Davis would be looking for one last big contract, given that he is 30 years of age, still playing at an elite level, and it is uncertain as to how many more chances he will get at a big pay day. From the 49ers perspective, however, this stand-off is just another headache in an off-season that has been stocked full of them.
The lone positive has been the draft. Baalke and Harbaugh appear to have found some genuine talent among the whopping 12 draft picks the team held possession of, and after signing third round draft choice Marcus Martin on Thursday, all 12 selections are now under contract as official members of the 49ers. Martin, a guard/center from USC, was an outstanding find in the third round after being graded by many as the top center prospect in the draft, and a borderline first to high-second round pick. He will compete immediately with Daniel Kilgore–San Fran’s penciled in starter at center–and could also see some time at guard with the status of Mike Iupati’s return still unknown. For a team that suddenly has some serious questions regarding the roster, adding 12 new players is not only a good start, but it could create some serious options in the not-too-distant future.
However, for every step they take forward in the off-season, San Francisco seemingly takes two back. It is just the way things have gone. By now, both Harbaugh and Baalke have to be wishing for September to arrive so they can finally lay to rest all the nonsense and misery that the past few months have brought about. But before they can do anything of the sort, the 49ers will have to address a grocery list of issues, the newest of which is their pro bowl tight end missing in action at OTAs.
Commentary by Kalen Skalesky