It's been a big-money week for NFL players, and San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis(notes) is the latest to get paid. After a Thursday that saw Tom Brady(notes), Charles Woodson(notes), and Miles Austin(notes) signed to lucrative contract extensions, Saturday was the day for Davis, who the 49ers selected sixth overall in the 2006 draft. Davis received a five-year, $37.5 million add-on to his current rookie contract, giving him $23 million in guaranteed money and making him the highest-paid tight end in NFL history. It took Davis awhile to get going in the NFL, but the Maryland product is no bust -- after seeing his stats drop in Mike Martz's tight end-averse game plan in 2008, he blew up in 2009, catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Head coach Mike Singletary once kicked Davis off the field after questioning his effort during a game, but Singletary was firmly in favor of this deal. "Vernon is a guy, if you find a guy who comes in and he's one of the hardest-working guys on your team if not the hardest-working guy on your team, what's going to change him?" Singletary said. "That's been the mark of Vernon Davis since he got here ... all you have to do is look at the identity of the 49ers and Vernon fits it. We're very fortunate to have him here. He's a great role model for the rest of our players."
And Davis isn't just a great pass-catcher; he's also one of the game's best blockers at his position. ESPN NFC West correspondent Mike Sando recently went through his game notes and detailed how Davis blocked out (deep breath): "Mathias Kiwanuka, Patrick Kerney(notes), Chike Okeafor(notes), Charles Grant(notes), Will Smith(notes), James Hall(notes), Calvin Pace(notes), Jacob Ford(notes), David Harris(notes) and others." Sando also recalled Davis blocking Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Roach(notes) so aggressively, Roach was injured on a play. Not what you'd expect from a supposed pass-catching tight end -- the label generally brings to mind big receivers in the flex, as opposed to inline guys who are true tight ends in the functional sense -- but Davis has proven his ability to do it all.
The question is whether Davis is worth a contract that pays him more than Jason Witten(notes) or Antonio Gates(notes). Is he the best tight end in the game, or can he be? It's pretty clear the 49ers are paying Davis as much for what they think he's capable of as for what he already has done. Using Football Outsiders' similarity scores, we can drill down a bit and see that the best three-year comps for Davis are the 2005 version of Todd Heap(notes), the 2009 version of Brent Celek(notes), the 1993 version of Shannon Sharpe, the 2005 version of Jeremy Shockey(notes), and the 1993 version of Eric Green(notes). A lot of guys with "upside" (yes, that dreaded sports cliché) in their future.
Davis is on a team that is trying to establish a consistent passing game with just one notable wide receiver in Michael Crabtree(notes), and Crabtree hasn't played a full NFL season yet after holding out into his rookie year. This is a young team on the upswing, and if Davis is their most talented offensive player -- it's probably a close call between him and running back Frank Gore(notes) until Crabtree proves it over time -- extending Davis was the right call. If you're going to splurge on potential, an uncapped year is the optimal time.