McGinn: Packers dropped ball on Vernon Davis

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – It’s borderline criminal that Vernon Davis isn’t playing tight end for the Green Bay Packers.

He’s not for a variety of reasons, many of which go right back to the halting, conservative approach to player procurement adhered to by general manager Ted Thompson.

Davis, the former San Francisco 49ers great, is tearing it up for the Washington Redskins. You’ll see Sunday night when No. 85 will play a complementary but vital role behind dangerous starter Jordan Reed.

With his still-phenomenal speed, boyish athleticism and boundless energy, Davis will be open. Count on that. His production just depends whether the disciplined progressions of quarterback Kirk Cousins takes him to other more open receivers.

“Deep throws, blocking, doing it all right now,” nickel back Micah Hyde said Thursday. “Give the man credit. He’s playing the best football of his life right now.”

The 32-going-on-22 Davis could have been the Packers’ choice with the fifth selection in the 2006 draft. They erred by taking A.J. Hawk, leaving Davis for the 49ers on the next pick.

As the trading deadline approached a year ago and with the 49ers headed nowhere, they shopped Davis. According to Davis, three teams were talking to the 49ers, but not the Packers, a source said.

On Nov. 2, Denver Broncos GM John Elway traded a pair of sixth-round draft choices to the 49ers for Davis and a seventh-rounder.

Within two weeks Davis was playing extensively, averaging 45.2 snaps and catching 20 passes for 201 yards from Games 9-14. But after dropping some key balls and not extending for a couple of others, the Broncos moved on with Owen Daniels and Virgil Green.

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Davis didn’t have a reception in the final five games, and logged just eight snaps in the Super Bowl.

“If I had a chance to go back I’d probably stick to (a team) with an offense that’s not as intricate,” Davis said Thursday. “Trying to get with Peyton Manning in midseason like that is hard. I don’t wish that on anyone. After a few mistakes, you just have to go in another direction. I believe John Elway said the same thing.”

At the Super Bowl, Davis admitted to making his share of mistakes in practice.

When I asked him in so many words if his career was nearing the end, he politely said, “I laugh at this stuff, man. I got about six, seven more years. I honestly feel my best days are ahead of me. I clocked 4.38 this offseason. Of course, I could have went there (Green Bay) and really contributed.”

Davis’ one-year contract expired and the Broncos didn’t want him back.

Thompson decided he needed one tight end when in reality it was time to start virtually from scratch.

On March 28, the Packers signed “street” free agent Jared Cook, who had been cast adrift by the Rams because of an excessive number of dropped passes, mediocre blocking and attitudinal issues. He’s three years younger than Davis.

It’s logical to assume that a team looking for a longer-term answer at tight end might have preferred Cook. The Packers obviously weren’t, or they wouldn’t have signed him to a one-year deal ($2.75 million, $825,000 guaranteed).

Although Davis’ performance this season suggests he could play forever, the Redskins signed him three days later for one year at $2.4 million ($1.1 million guaranteed).

The move was made by GM Scot McCloughan, one of Thompson’s closest friends, who drafted Davis for the 49ers.

“He’s in great shape, he’s a football player and is one of those guys that has never really been injured because his genetics are so incredible,” McCloughan said a few weeks later. “He can block, he can run, he catches.”

Certainly, the Packers would have had scouts watch every one of Davis’ snaps in 2015 (if not before) and analytics people screw it all down during free-agency preparation. Thompson and staff knew Davis well, having witnessed him destroy them on a regular basis for the 49ers. In eight games, his 25 catches were worth 530 yards (21.2) and seven touchdowns.

Yet, Thompson wasn’t interested.

“I didn’t wait around,” Davis said. “The Washington Redskins were the first team to show interest. I’m having the best time of my life right now. I’m elated.”

The Packers perhaps were more amenable to a veteran tight end because B.J. Raji’s decision on March 15 to take at least a one-year hiatus all but required them to draft a defensive lineman with the 27th pick. Hunter Henry, the breakout rookie tight end for the San DiegoChargers, went 35th as a far more impactful rookie than Kenny Clark.

Let’s be real. Jared Cook isn’t in the same strata as Vernon Davis. Other than standing 6-feet-4 ½ inches, or 1 ½ taller than Davis, there’s nothing to recommend Cook over Davis.

It could be said that injuries make it hard to judge Cook, who missed most of the offseason (foot surgery) and the last 6 ½ games (ankle). That’s true, and he has the tools to make a major contribution down the stretch.

The worst injury for Davis, who has never had surgery, was a sprained knee in 2006.

If the Packers insisted on Cook, then they should have signed him and Davis. Is it a cardinal sin to have two veterans? No, and certainly not for a team that presently sits with the 10th-most room ($8.97 million) beneath the NFL salary cap.

Thompson and Mike McCarthy already knew Richard Rodgers never would be a threat or an effective blocker. Justin Perillo and Kennard Backman are just guys.

When I saw Davis work Sunday against Minnesota, it was a eye-opening, to say the least. It led to watching him in many other games.

There was the blistering speed on almost identical wheel routes for 44 yards against linebacker Karlos Dansby of Cincinnati and 37 yards against safety Malcolm Jenkins of Philadelphia.

He separated instantly across the field from Detroit safety Tavon Wilson for 22. He obliterated an Eagles’ zone defense on a 13-yard TD by blasting off the line and making a remarkably explosive cut on a skinny post.

On a simple Y-stick, he made Cincinnati’s Rey Maualuga miss (extra 10 yards). On a bootleg, he broke another tackle by the middle linebacker (extra 21). When middle linebacker Sean Lee of Dallas let him pass in a zone, he added to his extra 17 yards by bouncing off a hard hit from safety Barry Church.

Davis’ toughness and efficiency as a blocker have been underrated dating to his career at Maryland, where he posted the 42-inch vertical jump and 33 reps on the bench press.

When Reed sat out Games 6-7 (concussion), Davis played almost every snap just like he always did in San Francisco. He’s aggressive and technique-conscious, seldom misses or even falls off a block, and at times gets defenders on the ground.

Purely as a receiver, Davis is ranked as the NFL’s fifth-best tight end by Football Outsiders; Rodgers is No. 40 among the 41 with at least 20 receptions.

Davis has caught 26 of 29 targets for a league-leading 89.7 percent. According to Sportradar, he hasn’t dropped a pass. His 14.7-yard average ranks second among tight ends to New England’s Rob Gronkowski.

When asked what he might have done for the Packers’ offense, Davis said, “Honestly, I don’t know. It depends how they were able to integrate me into the offense.”

The 248-pound Davis, with a 36-inch waist, was and is a physical marvel. Thompson can watch him in another red uniform Sunday night and wonder what should have been.

Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Randell Johnson (second from left) and Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis (85) stiff-arm each other in the first half of a preseason game in Landover, Md.
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