Tight end trend good for Davis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INDIANAPOLIS -- In the ever-shifting offensive landscape of the NFL, tight ends are back in vogue.

Benefiting from the mismatch of speed against linebackers and size against safeties, pass-catching tight ends - such as the Ravens' Todd Heap, Kansas City's Tony Gonzalez, San Diego's Antonio Gates and Pittsburgh's Heath Miller - are increasingly important weapons.

All of which bodes well for ex-Maryland standout Vernon Davis, who is giving up his final year of eligibility with the Terrapins to enter the NFL draft April 29-30.

"I feel good about being labeled the new breed of tight end," said Davis, who is here at the NFL scouting combine auditioning for league coaching and personnel staffs.

"That's what it is, when you've got a guy who can do more than catch the ball, [who can] get extra yardage after catching the ball and make guys miss. That pretty much speaks for itself."

With Maryland devising creative ways to get the ball into his hands, the 6-foot-4, 254-pound Davis, who has sub-4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, grabbed 51 passes for 871 yards and six touchdowns in his junior year. He even returned an occasional kickoff. With a combination of size, speed and soft hands, he is projected as a top-15 pick in the draft.

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who has a Pro Bowl tight end in Jeremy Shockey, acknowledged last week that a tight end who can handle blocking chores and also be a threat downfield is a huge advantage.

"If you've got speed at that position and you can do all these other things as well, you've got a chance to be pretty sophisticated and take advantage of that from a standpoint of strategy," Coughlin said.

As a bonus, the Steelers' Miller proved this past season that a rookie tight end can be an immediate contributor, even on a Super Bowl team. His 39 catches accounted for 459 yards and six touchdowns.

"The tight end can definitely be an asset," Miller said Friday. "When I came in last year, guys like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jeremy Shockey had already shown that the tight end can be an important and productive part of the offense. So that opened the door for guys like me."

And Davis said Miller's debut encourages him.

"Here's this guy who played in the same conference as you," Davis said of Miller, who played at Atlantic Coast Conference rival Virginia. "You can go in and do the same thing. Especially me, I know I can do it because I have a good work ethic."

But in Davis' case, some NFL team's gain is obviously Maryland's loss.

He said he knows it was a disappointment for the Terrapins that he left the program after his junior year, but he said he had an understanding with the coaching staff that if he projected as a first-round NFL pick, he would leave early. After petitioning the league for a projection and getting the highest possible grade, there was no doubt what Davis would do.

The tight end's defection comes just a year after defensive star Shawne Merriman left College Park early and was drafted in the first round by San Diego. That turned out well for the Chargers' defensive end considering he registered 10 sacks last season and earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.

When both were at Maryland, the two stars would occasionally hook up in practice, with Merriman covering Davis. The competition made both players better, the tight end said.

"[Merriman] basically helped me with my decision," Davis said. "I went to him before I left Maryland and I asked him if it was a good idea to leave and he said, 'Yeah, you had a great season and there's not much more you can do there at Maryland.' "

But Davis also acknowledges what Maryland continues to do for him.

"My hat goes off to Coach [Ralph] Friedgen, and especially my position coach, Ray Rychleski; they helped me a lot," Davis said. "I came here yesterday talking with these [NFL] coaches about football and they seemed to be impressed with how I was talking, the football language I was using, the way I was breaking down certain plays. And I give that all to my coaches with helping me with that."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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