ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins tight end Vernon Davis ran his route, turned toward the corner of the end zone and laid his arms out for the ball, which hit him in stride. The timing on this play during training camp was perfect and not at all surprising.
It reflected a comfort level between Davis and quarterback Alex Smith, owing to their six seasons together in San Francisco. It’s a combination the Redskins hope will lead to more big plays.
"A lot of guys came up to me and said, 'You and Alex seem to have a great connection,'" Davis said. "'It’s like you guys never left each other.'"
In six seasons together in San Francisco, Smith threw 30 touchdown passes to Davis -- 19 more than he threw to anyone else.
Smith owned a 115.2 passer rating when targeting Davis in San Francisco, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That came at a time when Smith was mostly still developing.
Davis flourished with the 49ers, with and without Smith. Now, with the two reunited six years later, there’s a familiarity they hope translates into success for both.
Davis won’t be a primary receiver. If fellow tight end Jordan Reed is healthy, he will be the focal point of the passing game. In Kansas City, Smith connected often with tight end Travis Kelce, both on routes on which he aligned in the slot, where Reed often is, and on downfield routes, a la Davis.
But it was evident throughout the spring and summer that Smith worked well with Davis.
“There’s a lot of instances where I don’t feel like we skipped a beat,” Smith said.
Davis had a connection with former quarterback Kirk Cousins as well. The past two seasons, he caught a combined 87 passes from Cousins, averaging 14.1 yards per catch. If all goes right for Washington’s passing game and Davis remains healthy at age 34, he should end up making around 45 receptions.
“Vernon is a very friendly target no matter who he plays with, really,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “He’s a good player, still runs very fast, but now it’s just a matter of the route concepts, them getting on the same page. Alex has been in the league for a long time. He’s easily adaptable to a lot of different guys, and since he’s played with Alex, Vernon, I’m sure, is probably a little easier for him."
It wasn’t always smooth. In the third preseason game, Smith completed one pass to Davis but missed seeing him on one route and led him too much on a deep corner pattern that would have gained big yards.
Davis’ productivity might be as much about Reed as it is about Smith. When on the field with Reed last season, Davis averaged 22.17 yards on six receptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It’s a small sample, but the Redskins were able to exploit favorable matchups. Sometimes that meant more targets down the field; his average air yards per target vs. Philadelphia was 17. Other times it meant long catch-and-runs; of his 127 receiving yards against the 49ers and Eagles in consecutive weeks, 72 came after the catch. Without Reed, Davis averaged a solid 13.92 yards per catch (and 13.94 in 2016).
The Redskins like using two-tight-end sets. They use three tight ends occasionally, adding Jeremy Sprinkle, and that could turn into a dangerous play-action set with Adrian Peterson in the backfield. With Sprinkle's ability to handle in-line blocking, Davis, if paired with him, can line up in the backfield in an offset-I and run routes, creating more possibilities.
Davis is a different player than when Smith first played with him, thanks to his studying Reed.
“The little passes, I’ve been able to take them longer than I would in the past,” he said. “I owe a lot of that to Jordan and watching him and his ability to move defenders and get yards after the catch.”
Davis averaged 4.91 yards after catches before joining the Redskins in 2016 and 6.18 in his two seasons with Washington.
Smith excels at finding underneath targets such as Davis. But Davis remains a downfield threat, something Kelce was for Smith in Kansas City.
“To be in the shape he’s in this many years playing a physical position and still be doing the things he’s doing – and he’s only gotten better -- is a tribute to his work ethic,” Smith said of Davis. “It’s far different aging as a quarterback than aging as a tight end. The guy practices every single day, goes 100 miles an hour every day. It doesn’t feel any different.”
Smith also has changed.
“His mindset, his ability to take care of business,” Davis said. “Not to say he didn’t do it in the past, but he’s grown.”
They hope that connection remains. The passes Smith dropped into Davis’ arms during practices this summer could be foreshadowing, especially the one in the corner of the end zone.
“I didn’t have to do much, and the ball just dropped right in my hands,” Davis said. “It’s nice.”