What Are the Denver Broncos Getting With Vernon Davis?
Peyton Manning is getting a new toy in the Denver Broncos offense.
Often around this time of year, trade rumors fly in the NFL as the trade deadline approaches, but rarely does anything happen. Occasionally, the New England Patriots will figure out how to steal some useful player who was underutilized by his former team, but rarely is there a splash.
At least in name value, we got close to a splash on Monday night when Adam Schefter reported the Denver Broncos had acquired tight end Vernon Davis and a seventh-round pick from the San Francisco 49ers for two sixth-round picks.
It’s a trade that should make sense for both sides. Davis was increasingly unhappy with both his role and quarterback in San Francisco, though he could have helped usher in the Blaine Gabbert had he held out just a few more hours, and the Broncos needed to get a little more out of the tight end position than Owen Daniels has been able to give.
It’s the type of move a general manager shouldn’t be afraid to take when the championship window for the team is closing with a 39-year-old quarterback at the helm. Whatever Davis has left is likely more than the best Daniels could give, but it still remains to be seen what exactly Davis has left.
Davis in Denver
Throughout his career, Peyton Manning has relied on his tight end as a safety net in his passing progressions. They’re usually at least moderately targeted, enough so that we still know who Jacob Tamme is. That tight end position this season hasn’t exactly been what either Manning or the Broncos had been accustomed to during his tenure with the team. After Julius Thomas departed in free agency, the Broncos brought in Daniels, a longtime favorite of head coach Gary Kubiak from this time in Houston.
Daniels went along with Kubiak for his lone season in Baltimore last year and was a dependable tight end in the passing game, per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which compares a player's performance to expectation-level. On 78 targets last season, Daniels ranked 20th among tight ends in Reception NEP per target at 0.63. He started rolling a bit against the Green Bay Packers this past week, but Daniels only has a Reception NEP per target this season of 0.45.
Even with how Davis has been used in a sputtering passing offense in San Francisco, he’s measured slightly better in Reception NEP per target at 0.55, though it’s hard to look at that and think positively. Over the past few seasons, Davis has been up-and-down as a receiver. He only played in six games last season but was the worst receiving tight end in the league by NEP. His 0.32 Reception NEP per target on 50 targets was the lowest among all tight ends who saw at least 30 pass attempts come their way. Davis also had five drops in those 50 targets, for a drop rate of 10 percent.
The year before, though, Davis was one of the most efficient receivers in the league, fourth among all tight ends with a 0.91 Reception NEP per target. Much of that was touchdown dependent -- Davis had 13 touchdowns on 84 targets -- but that’s the type of upside the Broncos could be getting, filling in a role quite similar to that of the departed Thomas. Last season, Thomas led all tight ends with a Reception NEP of 0.97, thanks to 12 touchdown catches on just 62 targets.
Denver could certainly use help in the red zone this year, as the Broncos have scored just eight touchdowns in the red zone, tied for the third least in the NFL behind the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Only 44 percent of Denver’s red zone visits this year have resulted in a touchdown, which is the fifth worst mark in the league. Last season that percentage was 64 percent, fourth best in the league, and in 2013 it was an astronomical 79 percent, which led the league. The Broncos aren’t going to revert back to that old form suddenly, but having another weapon in the red zone should be a help to the offense, whether Davis is the direct beneficiary or not.
An underrated aspect of this trade is what the Broncos are gaining in Davis’s blocking ability. His blocking is far superior to Daniels’, which should help a Denver ground game that has struggled so far this season. The Broncos rank 31st in Adjusted NEP per play on the ground, better than just the Cleveland Browns. Should the Broncos rely more on the running game later in the year like they did last season, they could use all the blocking they can get with the offensive line struggling so far this season.
This is a low-risk, high-upside move for a team in win-now mode, the type more general managers should be trying to make when the opportunity arises. Denver gave up sixth-round picks in both 2016 and 2017 to acquire Davis along with a 2016 seventh-round pick from the 49ers. Using the draft pick calculator over at Football Perspective, the draft capital given up by Denver looks even less significant. If we assume the Broncos will end the season as one of the best teams in the league and fall late in the draft order, their sixth-round picks would fall somewhere around the 205 overall range. By Approximate Value, two picks in the 205-range are worth about the same as the 185th overall pick, which is just 20 picks earlier in the sixth-round.
For a team with the window of contendership closing, the Broncos are risking close to nothing to take a flier on a player who was one of the best all-around tight ends in the league just a few years ago. Davis will count for $2.5 million on Denver’s cap for the remainder of the season, per Spotrac, and he will be a free agent after the year ends. None of that will really have much of an impact for the Broncos if Davis can be a helpful contributor throughout the playoffs.
The expectations also don’t have to be high for the trade to be a success. The Broncos are going to the playoffs and will host at least one game -- they have a 98.3 percent chance of winning their division, highest in the league. Davis and Manning realistically have nine weeks to get on the same page and adapt to each other before this really matters.
This trade is a flier to help Denver’s chances to win a championship in what could be the last moments of Peyton Manning’s career, and the Broncos will enter Week 9 a better team for it.