SANTA CLARA The 49ers' Vernon Davis wants to be the best tight end.
Not the best tight end in the NFC West or even the best tight end in the NFL today. He wants to be the best tight end who's ever played the game.
And Davis isn't shy about sharing his goal.
He most recently said it, with passion in his voice, this summer to a group of football campers, a statement caught on camera that sparked eye-rolling from coast to coast.
"Best tight end ever, Vernon?" his critics scoffed. "You should worry about being the best tight end now."
Davis is working on that. In fact, that's all he does.
He's the last player off the practice field, and he comes in on his days off to snag balls from the JUGS machine. When he's not on the field during practice, he's off on a side field working with a quarterback, a trainer, anyone he can corral to throw him a pass.
"I mean, he's over there the entire time playing catch, practicing a different type of catch," quarterback Alex Smith said. "Maybe if he struggled with one that week that he's got on his mind, he's just going to go over there and catch it over and over again. He just constantly works on those things."
Said coach Jim Harbaugh of the seven-year veteran: "We know what makes Vernon tick, what his goals are, what his ambitions are, his dreams are. When you know that, it doesn't surprise you that he's out there every day trying to get better and trying to improve."
Davis has been dismissed as boastful, but his ritual is grounded in humility.
He wasn't a natural receiver coming out of the University of Maryland in 2006. He didn't know how to run routes, and he had trouble catching the ball if he wasn't squared to the quarterback.
On the run? Over his shoulder? The muscle-bound tight end was awkward and unsteady.
But catch by practice-field catch, Davis has been chipping away at that deficiency. Having good hands is thought to be an innate quality, but Davis is showing hard work conquers all.
His touchdown Sunday in Green Bay was an excellent example.
It won't be included in his highlight reel when he retires, but the four-yarder from Smith was low and fast and was thrown with two defenders nearby. It was the type of reception good tight ends dig out one Davis wouldn't have made six years ago.
"I feel comfortable throwing him any ball, especially over the shoulder," said Smith, who's thrown 27 of his 70 touchdown passes to Davis. "But I feel like Vernon in traffic and not just because of his size but because he's so aggressive with the ball in the air I feel comfortable throwing him covered balls. You just throw him the ball. He's so aggressive with the ball in the air, it's really going to be him or nobody."
Davis' goal of becoming the best tight end remains a dream, and it's probably impossible to achieve. But chasing it has put him in the conversation when it comes to the best current tight end.
Most of his challengers to that title are glorified wide receivers who are moved all over the field at wideout, in the slot, as an H-back in an effort to create favorable matchups.
Davis actually is a tight end, one who truly can be compared to the all-time greats because he does what they did block. On a run-first 49ers offense in which offensive weapons are constantly being shuffled in and out of the lineup, Davis is the constant, whether it's third down and half an inch or third down and 17 yards.
Said Smith of Davis' dream to be the best ever: "I think people who are around him every day and see what he's capable of and what he can do it's not out of the realm of possibility."