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Vernon Davis hopes to wake from fantasy nightmare

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Every season, we do our best to predict who the big sleepers and breakout candidates are going to be. Every season, we get a few of them wrong -- very wrong. But just because a certain player goes bust one year doesn't mean they'll be a bust forever. Welcome to "Bust-a-Move", where we're breaking down some of 2014's biggest fantasy football disappointments to determine if you can expect some stat sheet salvation in 2015.

If there's one thing you know about the fantasy tight end position, it's that there isn't much depth beyond Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham. But it wasn't always that way. Back in 2011, we were heralding The Year of the Fantasy Tight End. That was the season Gronk announced his presence to the world with 240.9 fantasy points, while 10 others at the position posted 100 or more.

Among that group was Vernon Davis, who by 2011 had established himself as one of the top tight ends in the game. He broke out in 2009 by setting career-highs in targets (128), receptions (78), yards (965) and touchdowns (13). Since that magical year, Davis has never repeated that overall production, but had remained among the elite at his position.

Until 2014.

Last year was an unmitigated disaster for the San Francisco 49ers offense and Davis was not immune. The once-productive pass-catcher had arguably his worst professional season with just 26 receptions for 245 yards and a pair of touchdowns -- both of which came in the season opener against the Dallas Cowboys. The last time Davis had a season that poor, we were treated to this unforgettable Mike Singletary gem. When the dust had settled on Davis' 2014 campaign, he'd scored just 36.9 fantasy points. Total.

Need more perspective on how rough things were for Davis last season? Well, Rob Gronkowski scored 32.9 fantasy points in Week 8 alone. Or you can look at some of the names that finished ahead of Davis in fantasy scoring last season -- Andrew Quarless, John Carlson, Jeff Cumberland and Daniel Fells, to name a few. Kyle Rudolph finished the year with 1.8 fewer fantasy points ... and he played in just nine games.

But enough piling on. Yes, 2014 was an awful season for Davis. But where did things go wrong? How did a player who was consistently among the best at his position fall so far as to be owned in just 36.4 percent of all NFL.com leagues by the end of the season?

What went wrong


If you dig into Davis' tape on Game Rewind, you'll notice that it won't take too long to get through a full season of activity. That's because he saw far fewer passes coming his way last season. Davis was targeted just 50 times in 2014. Compare that to the previous five seasons when he averaged 92 balls thrown his way. It's no secret that opportunity is the lifeblood of fantasy success and Davis just wasn't seeing a lot of opportunities last year.

Watching the tape reveals part of the reason why the 49ers tight end wasn't seeing as many chances as in past seasons. When Davis was mostly able to get open, it was via missed assignments or getting lost in the wash on crossing routes and misdirections. There were very few occasions when Davis was able to win one-on-one matchups. That last fact was surprising considering speed had always been one of Davis' greatest assets. After all, he did run a 4.38 40-yard dash after leaving Maryland. Granted, 40 times don't always translate to on-field success, but it was part of what made Davis a matchup nightmare during his big years. It's fair to attribute some of those struggles to a litany of nagging injuries that might not have kept Davis off the field but certainly contributed to his decline in production.

What can't be blamed on injuries are the number of drops. Last season, Davis was charged with five drops on his 50 targets -- a 10 percent drop rate. Only five players with 50-plus targets had a higher drop rate (Lamar Miller, Dwayne Allen, Jace Amaro, Andre Roberts and Louis Murphy). Of the players with five or more overall drops, only four (Rashad Jennings, Ahmad Bradshaw, Victor Cruz and Alfred Morris) had fewer targets. In short, it was a pretty inefficient year for Davis any way you slice it.

What must improve


If Davis can get healthy and regain some of the speed that made him such a problem for opposing defenses, it could go a long way toward getting him a few more opportunities. Certainly the Niners wouldn't need to scheme as much to try and get Davis open if he is able to gain a little more separation from his defender. It should also help to have new addition Torrey Smith on the outside to help stretch the field and potentially leave more room open in the middle of the field.

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The next issue is simple: catch the football. I'm willing to allow that last season was an anomaly since Davis hadn't posted a drop rate that high since 2009, when he had 128 targets. Still, if he is going to have to share the wealth in San Francisco's passing game, he'll need to make the most of his opportunities.

Finally, Davis needs to return to being a monster after the catch. Much like a lot of things in the 2014 season, the tight end's numbers in that category were way down. Davis posted just 49 yards after the catch (YAC) last year after averaging 302.6 YAC for the past five seasons. That's about 25 additional fantasy points per year, or about 68.5 percent of Davis' 2014 total.

What we expect


So much about last season seemed like an anomaly for Davis that it's hard to imagine him having a second consecutive dismal campaign. There are still questions as to what the 49ers offense will look like under new offensive coordinator Geep Chryst, but it seems logical to believe that San Francisco will do everything it can to get one of its best weapons involved in the offense.

Verdict: Davis isn't likely to return to the top of the tight end rankings, but a return to a slot as a mid to low-end TE1 this year isn't out of the question.

Past "Bust a Move" articles:
    » Cordarrelle Patterson

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com and a man who wrote this while listening to RJD2 on repeat. Tweet him music recommendations or fantasy tips @MarcasG. Or hear him sing a jingle on this week's NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast.

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