Vernon Davis: keep or cut?

Entering the final season of his contract, the 49ers will have a decision to make regarding Pro-Bowl tight end Vernon Davis, who is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career and is set to be one of the team's highest-paid players in 2015.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis did not have a good year by his standards.

Two seasons ago, only Jimmy Graham (16) scored more than Davis’ 13 touchdowns, not including the two Davis added in the postseason. In 2014, Davis had a career-low 245 receiving yards on 26 catches with just two touchdown grabs. Both came in the season opener.

Suddenly, Davis’ future with the 49ers might be in doubt.

“I’m always prepared for anything,” Davis said after the 49ers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. “That’s just how I like to operate. I’m prepared for anything. Whatever it is, I’m going to make the most out of it and I’m going to my very best in whatever it is.”

At the peak of his powers, Davis was considered one of the most unique tight ends in the league, with the ability to block at a high level paired with the ability to run away from most defensive backs thanks to his outstanding burst.

Davis was the 49ers’ lone deep threat in Jim Harbaugh’s first three seasons in San Francisco. The team might have needed more than just one, but the effectiveness of the running game led to success with play action helping Davis get open. That was Davis’ bread and butter, both going long against defensive backs and in plays close to the goal line. Linebackers could not cover him.

But in 2014, Davis dealt with a new position coach (Eric Mangini - now defensive coordinator) and injuries to his ankle and back. While the 49ers tried to figure out a new offensive approach that included more three-wide receiver sets, Davis was in constant flux. Play action suddenly became a detriment - not the weapon it was in previous seasons as the running game struggled to find its rhythm.

Davis didn’t help himself in the eyes of the organization - or his accountant - after holding out during the offseason program, costing himself more than $200,000 in missed workout bonuses and fines. There’s no telling whether or not that impacted his lackluster season. But we know it didn’t help. Davis re-joined the team on the first day of training camp as if the ‘holdout’ never happened.

Without getting a new deal from the 49ers, Davis is slated to make $4.35 million in base salary and $2.668 in bonuses next season, the last of his contract. He will be the team’s fifth-highest cap number at $6.98 million, according to Overthecap.com.

Do the 49ers restructure his deal, possibly adding an extra year at a cheaper rate with guarantees to lower his cap number? Or do they cut him if he is unwilling to take a pay cut?

Or, the least likely, do they allow him to play at his current cap number after such a disappointing 2014 season?

The argument for keeping Davis

Davis had poor stretches before, but found ways to rebound.

In 2008, Davis’ third season in the league, he was 24-years-old. The previous season he managed just two touchdown catches along with 31 catches for 358 yards. To that point, many questioned whether Davis would ever live up to getting drafted sixth overall while working in San Francisco’s struggling offensive with Alex Smith.

The next year, Davis put together the best campaign of his career. He was targeted 128 times, making 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, a league-high for tight ends. It was a monster, break-out kind of season.

Fast forward. In the last six games of the 2012 season, Davis was targeted just 12 times, making six catches for 61 yards and no touchdowns, leaving many to wonder if he would ever pair effectively with Colin Kaepernick.

But in the postseason, he made 12 grabs in three games, including 100-yard efforts in the conference title game and Super Bowl.

If he returns in 2015, the 49ers are hoping for a similar turnaround.

At 31, Davis should have plenty of football left. A number of tight ends remain successful into their 30s, particularly the players that maintain good workout habits (see: Gonzalez, Tony). Davis might fall into that category.

Like Gonzalez, Jason Witten and others, Davis takes very good care of his body and remains a physical specimen. But his inability to deal with his nagging injuries in 2014 caused some to question his physical toughness entering the latter stages of his career.

If the 49ers part with Davis, who steps up in his place? No. 2 tight end Vance McDonald has shown promise as a run blocker, but has just 10 catches in his first two seasons after getting drafted in the second round of out Rice in 2013.

If they cut Davis, they would have to consider drafting another tight end early. To this point, general manager Trent Baalke has not proven an ability to effectively draft play makers on offense.

They could also dip into the pool of free agent tight ends, which has some intriguing options for new position coach Tony Sparano. Here’s the list, via NFL.com:

David Ausberry, Oakland Raiders
Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns
Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins
Owen Daniels, Baltimore Ravens
Ed Dickson, Carolina Panthers
Virgil Green, Denver Broncos
Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals
Rob Housler, Arizona Cardinals
Lance Kendricks, St. Louis Rams
Anthony McCoy, Seattle Seahawks
Zach Miller, Chicago Bears
Niles Paul, Washington Redskins
Dante Rosario, Chicago Bears
Alex Smith, Cincinnati Bengals
Lee Smith, Buffalo Bills
Matt Spaeth, Pittsburgh Steelers
Jacob Tamme, Denver Broncos
Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos

The argument for cutting Davis

Former 49ers coach Bill Walsh famously said it’s better to cut a player a year too early than a year too late. If the front office believes Davis’ best days are behind him and 2014 was a sign of things to come, than it makes sense to cut Davis and relieve themselves of his near-$7 million cap hit before the new league year starts in March.

Holding out during last year’s offseason program was in no way endearing for Davis. And the strategy came back to bite him leading into his worst season of his career in 2014. If he’s unwilling to take less money, the 49ers might be forced to go another direction after his nine years in red and gold.

His off-the-field decisions will also be something the 49ers will consider. Not with arrests or character concerns. The front office will wonder if his mind has wondered too far into his post-football life.

Davis has invested his money in a variety of places, including a local art gallery, smoothie shops and a “brand building” company, Fantex, that is entitled to 10 percent of his earnings. It’s to the point where it’s fair to question his overall commitment to football after nine seasons of physical pounding at a physical position (no one should have a problem with that, by the way).

At some point, Davis will lose a step, if it hasn’t happened already. Becoming slower would mean Davis would have to transform his game from being a separator to consistently making difficult catches in traffic, which has become a rare occurrence in recent seasons.

That’s what Gonzalez and Witten were able to do in the latter years of their career. They became precise route runners that excelled at competing for the ball in small areas, not take the top off defenses as Davis has done when at his best.

What do you think? Join the conversation in our message boards below.

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