Why I voted Vernon Davis third-best TE

Counting the reasons San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis ranked behind only Antonio Gates and Jason Witten on my ballot featuring the NFL's 10 best tight ends:

  • Production: Davis has 20 scoring receptions over the past two seasons, most among tight ends and one behind overall league leader Roddy White. Davis has 134 receptions over that span, five more than Gates and only 10 fewer than wide receivers Calvin Johnson and Greg Jennings.

  • Big-play ability: Davis averaged 16.3 yards per reception last season. His per-catch average over the past two seasons ranks 14th in the NFL among all players with at least 100 receptions during that span. Davis can outrun linebackers and safeties without trouble. He is faster than some cornerbacks.

  • Durability: Davis has not missed a game over the past three seasons. He has played through injuries. Injuries have slowed quite a few other top tight ends in the league during that time, including Gates, Dallas Clark, Jermichael Finley, Chris Cooley and Owen Daniels.

  • Better focus: Davis has done a much better job controlling his emotions during games. He also reduced his penalty count from 12 in 2009 to two last season.

  • Transcendent talent. The consistently productive tight ends in the NFL tend to play with Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. Davis has not. He has also changed offensive coordinators every year since entering the NFL as the sixth pick in the 2006 draft.

  • Improved hands. Davis no longer drops passes regularly.

Davis finished fourth behind Witten, Gates and Clark in ESPN.com balloting. He was close behind Clark and well ahead of Cooley and Tony Gonzalez, quite an accomplishment given where Davis' career stood two-plus years ago.

Gates and Witten were my top choices because they have produced consistently for so long and neither appears to be trailing off. Gates was the top choice because he's the more dynamic receiver. Clark's injury last season made Davis an easier choice in the third spot. I ranked Gonzalez only 10th because he no longer threatens defenses down the field. He averaged a career-low 9.4 yards per reception last season and that figure has been in retreat since 2006.

Davis is only 27 years old. His yards-per-catch average is headed in the other direction: from 9.8 in 2007 to 11.5 (2008), 12.4 (2009) and 16.3 (2010).

"It is tough to argue he is not a top five tight end," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "He is a tenacious blocker -- not a great blocker, but he can be a good one at times. He is one of the few tight ends in the league who is going to have 60-yard plays. I'm not even sure Gates or Clark is any more to the degree Davis is. I don’t think he is as good a route-runner. A lot of his stuff is just vertical. He is not as sharp out of his cuts yet. Those areas he can improve upon -- getting a better feel for coverages, getting better out of his breaks, better setting up routes, those types of things."