The younger brother of San Francisco 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, Davis has rare talent and sterling workout numbers.
Yet, Davis’ older brother’s high-profile clashes with 49ers coach Mike Singletary as well as his generally disappointing development combined with Davis’ run-ins with Illinois coach Ron Zook have raised questions about whether Vontae Davis is a risky potential first-round draft pick this weekend.
In a draft class where no cornerback prospect is regarded as a sure thing, NFL teams are performing their due diligence.
For the Baltimore Ravens, who hold the 26th overall pick, that means investigating the cornerbacks very thoroughly even though they don’t absolutely have to find an immediate starting cornerback. The Ravens signed Domonique Foxworth in free agency, re-signed veteran Samari Rolle, have Fabian Washington under contract for this season and added depth with reserve cornerback/kick returner Chris Carr.
Davis was one of at least six cornerbacks to visit the Ravens’ training complex.
"I think the kid unfairly gets saddled with his brother because people say his brother is a bust," Ravens director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said. "He’s not his brother. Is he physically gifted like his brother? Absolutely. Does he have some flaws? Yeah, but everyone’s got a flaw. He’s an aggressive tackler.
"He’s got very good speed, good ball skills and good athleticism, all pretty good things to have as a corner. If his brother was an All-Pro right now, these questions wouldn’t be a concern, that’s my opinion. Because his brother has been labeled as a bust and hasn‘t lived up to expectations, Vontae, I think, has been a little unfairly saddled with that."
Davis was benched twice by Zook, but has a sculpted physique, a prototypical size-speed ratio at 5-foot-11, 203 pounds with a 4.40 time in the 40-yard dash as well as a 36-inch vertical leap and the strength to bench press 225 pounds 25 times.
"He’s a very explosive guy, a very good athlete," Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said.
However, Davis’ brother’s struggles and the perception that he has issues have damaged his stock despite the production of 206 career tackles and seven interceptions.
"Everybody’s going to find a negative," Davis said during a February press conference at the combine. "That’s the main reason why I’m at the combine, so I can show these coaches I am a good person and that I have a good personality. I don’t want to be known as Vernon Davis’ little brother. I want Vernon to be known as Vontae Davis’ big brother."
Added NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock: "I think Vontae Davis is the most talented corner, but I think he’s going to slide because of off-the-field issues."
Ohio State All-American selection Malcolm Jenkins is the consensus top-rated cornerback and was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner. He’s expected to be drafted in the top 15 picks.
Jenkins is a 6-0, 204-pounder who intercepted 11 career passes, but lacks ideal speed with a 4.55 effort and is probably best suited to play in a Cover 2 scheme due to a lack of flexibility and sudden change of direction skills.
The Ravens conducted a formal interview with Jenkins at the combine.
"I think in a Cover 2 scheme he’s ideal as a corner," DeCosta said. "I think he’s a physical guy who’s got size and could play safety. I think in the best of all situations, you draft him as a corner, and if you find out he can’t do it, you move him to safety. Having spent some time with Malcolm, he’s a determined kid, he’s a talented kid, and he’s played some very good football at a very high level of football for a long time.
"I think his future is at corner, at least in the short term. He’s a smart kid. We did interview him at the combine, and he did a very good job for us on the board. He caught the football very well. We had Rod Woodson who started out as a corner and made the switch to safety and did very well. I think Malcolm is a very good player and has a bright future in the NFL.”
University of Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler is an intriguing option for several teams.
A cousin of Ravens running back Willis McGahee and a nephew of former NFL safety Gene Atkins, Butler seems to be a safer bet in many respects than Davis. He’s projected to go as high as the Miami Dolphins with the 25th overall pick.
Butler is relatively slender and not all that physical at 5-11, 183 pounds, but has 4.40 speed and registered a 43-inch vertical leap and an 11-2 broad jump at the combine. He intercepted seven career passes as a four-year starter.
"I think Darius Butler is one of the fastest risers in the draft, and I think Butler will go 11 to 20," Mayock said during a conference call. "He has the best feet and change of direction of any cornerback in the draft. He would be hard to turn down because of his feet and speed, but he is 5-10 and 183 pounds and somewhat selective in how physical he is."
The Ravens also had imposing Utah cornerback Sean Smith in for a visit as well as hard-hitting University of Maryland cornerback Kevin Barnes, Greg Toler, a Division II star from St. Paul’s (Va.) who has visited 17 NFL teams, and Nicholls State cornerback Lardarius Webb. The Ravens also had a private workout with Toler.
Team officials interviewed Oregon cornerback Jairus Byrd, who is relatively slow afoot, at the combine. Oregon State cornerback Brandon Hughes said that Baltimore has displayed interest in him.
At nearly 6-4, 215 pounds, Smith is one of the biggest cornerbacks to enter the draft in several years. He has respectable 4.49 speed and nine career interceptions, too.
He could also play safety because of his ability to tackle, but is mostly drawing second-round grades.
"Sean Smith is a very, very good press corner," DeCosta said. "Somewhat one-dimensional. If he gets his hands on you, you’re done. I compare him to guys like Bobby Taylor and Nmandi Asomugha as far as what he can do. We play a lot of off-man coverage.
"He’s not a very good off-man corner right now, so he’s got some things to work on. His backpedal is a little ragged. When it comes to a taller corner like that, they don’t pedal quite as well as a smaller guy."
The Ravens have been complimentary of undersized Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, a 5-9 player who has 4.47 to 4.5 speed and believes he’s the top cornerback in the draft. He’s the all-time ACC record20holder with 21 career interceptions. He may fall to the second round.
However, Smith may be as short as 5-7, which could be a detriment against taller receivers.
Toler is a major sleeper who had academic problems out of high school, but has 4.35 speed and has turned in outstanding workouts. He might go as high as the third or fourth round.
Webb is a former Southern Miss player who was dismissed from the team for conduct issues and transferred. The Division I-AA star has 4.4 speed and top-notch kick return skills. He had a private workout this week for the Cleveland Browns.
Hortiz predicted that as many as five cornerbacks could go in the first round.
"It’s such a high-demand position," Hortiz said. "The draft is funny. I’d be surprised if Jenkins is going around 20 and Davis is going from 20 to 30 and only two corners are taken in the first round. When a run starts on a position, then guys get pushed up the board. It happens every year.
"There’s a knock on everybody. Malcolm Jenkins, can he run? Alphonso Smith, undersized. Sean Smith, never played off-coverage. Butler, a little guy. A lot of these guys get picked apart, but if you see something you like and you see the ability and you’re comfortable with the concerns, you take him."