YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Frank Gore coined an appropriate term Thursday to describe Anthony Davis' inner persona as the 49ers' right tackle.

"He always had the 'dogness' in him," Gore said. "I knew he was going to be all right his rookie year because of how mean and nasty he was."

Davis is emerging as more than a feisty, junkyard dog in his third NFL season, and Gore isn't the only one praising Davis' efforts during the 49ers' 2-1 start.

Another emphatic endorser is New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, whose club hosts the 49ers on Sunday.

"In my opinion he's one of the premier right tackles in the game," Ryan said this week. "You've got a guy who's got all the athleticism you look for: a power player, he finishes, he's good in pass protection and a tremendous athlete."

That should be enough to make Davis blush. But it didn't. Speaking softly with one of his countless caps tugged down to his eyebrows, Davis dismissed Ryan's compliments as perhaps a sneaky ploy.

"I've got a long way to go. I'm 22 now," Davis said. "I don't take praise well, because I feel they're trying to make you complacent. Because I'm not near where I want to be."

This weekend, Davis will be playing near home. He grew up in Piscataway, N.J., some 40 minutes south of the Meadowlands, and stayed to play his college ball at Rutgers.

When the 49ers traded up to draft him 11th overall in 2010, they selected a player who would go on to start Day 1 and not look back.


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General manager Trent Baalke is understandably one of Davis' greatest admirers. Though he declined to comment on Ryan's analysis, Baalke surely wouldn't argue if some went so far as to call Davis the NFL's best right tackle.

Nor would the man who has observed -- and relied upon -- Davis' growth from his spot in the backfield.

"Watching from his rookie year, he's a totally different player now," Gore said. "These first three games, he's been balling. He came a long way."

Center Jonathan Goodwin said the past two years of experience helped Davis improve greatly, specifically with his techniques.

Davis acknowledges his growth, especially after getting to participate in a full slate of offseason workouts after last season's lockout. His striving to improve, however, trumps any current compliments.

"One day I want (Ryan) to say I was the best he's ever seen," Davis said.

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, who served as the Scarlet Knights' offensive line coach in Davis' three seasons there, sensed a change in Davis when he visited campus this summer.

"There was an ease about him," Flood said in a phone interview. "He's finally settled in to being a professional football player."

Rutgers began recruiting Davis when he was a freshman in high school, and his passion for the game shined through from the day he suited up for Rutgers as a true freshman.

"The thing that was always neat about Anthony was: The bigger the game and the better the competition, the better he played," Flood added. "It's a great example of how Anthony raises his game to the next level.

"We always thought Anthony played offense the way others played defense. He played with aggression."

One area of noticeable improvement: penalties. Davis hasn't been flagged this season, after drawing a team-high nine penalties last season and 11 as a rookie.

Davis currently ranks sixth among tackles in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing-productivity stats. He's yielded no sacks, no hits and three hurries in 110 pass-blocking snaps. He ranked 51st last season, 69th as a rookie.

In terms of run blocking, he's graded 17th among tackles, also up significantly from last year's mark of 44th and a rookie ranking of 58th, according to Pro Football Focus.

"Really from March on we've seen nothing but improvement -- fundamentally, mentally, recognition wise," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "Are there things that he needs to improve on? Yes, but everybody does."

Davis admitted that Ryan's compliments were "cool to hear" because it reaffirmed his personal belief that he's improving.

"But then it's kind of backhanded," Davis added. "I think everything is backhanded, because I have expectations for myself that are higher than anybody else can have of me."

That must be the "dogness" talking.

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CamInman.