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.
It didn't take long for fantasy owners to think we'd found a good thing with Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers quarterback made his first NFL start back in 2012 and threw for 243 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a win over the Chicago Bears. He finished the season by taking the Niners to within a couple of plays of a Super Bowl title. The following season, Kaepernick began the year with a 30-point performance against the Green Bay Packers and ended it by being the ninth-highest scoring fantasy quarterback.
It seemed the best was yet to come. After all, San Francisco had so much confidence in Kaepernick that the team traded Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs before the 2013 season. The Nevada product had the fantasy world at his feet. Enthusiasts were all aglow at what the prospects could be. Then the 2014 season happened.
Saying that Kaepernick had a bad season in 2014 probably isn't fair. It was more of a failure to launch. The speedy signal-caller posted a string of games that might not have qualified as "terrible", but certainly weren't productive enough to be considered "good". If you had him on your roster last season, it was definitely enough to drive you to distraction. When the dust settled at the end of 2014, Kaepernick had fallen out of the top 15 among quarterbacks while averaging a lackluster 15.7 fantasy points per game.
Earlier this week, my colleagues and I at NFL.com fantasy debated whether we expected to see Kaepernick return to his perch as a top 10 fantasy quarterback. (Spoiler alert: the consensus was "no".) But not content just to speculate, I went back to Game Rewind to try and pinpoint why Kaepernick might not be the man he once was.
What went wrong
The first smartphone I ever bought had all sorts of bells, whistles, lights and pretty colors. As a phone, it stunk -- which sort of defeated the purpose. Similarly, we spend so much time focused on Kaepernick's speed and ability to make plays with his legs that we sometimes ignore the fact that he struggles when delivering the football. However, it became painfully apparent when watching Kap's work on film that his accuracy was lacking. While Kaepernick completed 60.5 percent of his passes (second-highest percentage of his career), it still ranked him a disappointing 24th among NFL quarterbacks.
But it's easy to look at the numbers and say that Kaepernick wasn't connecting with his receivers. It's another to decipher why. Drops among his pass-catchers was certainly a problem, but Kap also made more than a few questionable decisions about when and where to go with the football. That's part of what contributed to his career-high 10 interceptions. While that might not seem like a lot -- Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler led the NFL with 18 picks last season -- it takes a big chunk out of your fantasy totals when you only throw 19 touchdown passes.
Kaepernick also continues to be plagued by a lack of touch on certain throws. As a former high school baseball star pitcher, he would be wise to add a change-up to go along with his blazing fastball.
Not everything that went wrong with Colin Kaepernick could be blamed on Colin Kaepernick. The 49ers offensive line, which had a been a strength of the team, took a step back in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, San Francisco's o-line ranked 22nd as a pass blocking unit. That partially contributed to Kaepernick being sacked 52 times last season -- only Blake Bortles was sacked more. Yet it's also fair to wonder how a player who is so fast was caught behind the line so many times. Much like divining the number of licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, we might never fully know.
But since we're on the subject of Kaepernick and his speed, there is the matter of his running ability. He ran for a career-best 639 yards last season, but that number is a little misleading. Kap posted 151 rushing yards -- nearly a quarter of his season total -- in the Week 16 overtime loss to the San Diego Chargers. That game also accounted for Kaepernick's only rushing touchdown, a 90-yard scamper late in the third quarter. Take that contest out of the equation and you have a heaping helping of "meh".
What must improve
Improving accuracy is going to be crucial to any attempts to rebound into the top 10 for Kaepernick. The good news is that he's enlisted the services of former Super Bowl winner Kurt Warner (among others) to help him get better in multiple aspects of the game. One of those aspects will have to be his in-game management and making smart choices with the football. In the latest NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast, I suggested that new 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula and offensive coordinator Geep Chryst sit Kaepernick down "A Clockwork Orange"-style and force him to watch videos of Russell Wilson. Kap might have greater physical tools than Wilson, but the Seattle quarterback's on-field smarts have made him the superior player over the past couple of seasons.
Kaepernick is also going to need some help from the guys around him. The offensive line will need to perform better than it did last season, but that could be a tall order for a group that lost Mike Iupati (Cardinals) and Anthony Davis (retirement). It will also put added pressure on young running back Carlos Hyde to fill Frank Gore's sizable shoes. But most importantly, the pass-catching trio of Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and Vernon Davis will need to be playmakers in an offense that has been very run-heavy during Kap's tenure as the starting quarterback.
What we expect
While last season was certainly below everyone's expectations, there's a sense that we might have seen the best that Colin Kaepernick has to offer. He has proven to be an incredible athlete who still has some deficiencies as a quarterback. Now with a new head coach and offensive coordinator, it will be interesting to see how Kap and the rest of his 49ers teammates adjust to this new world order.
Verdict: There are far too many unknowns surrounding the makeup of the Niners offense and Kaepernick's development to believe he'll remain much more than a QB2 in 2015.