Vernon Davis Can Be an Elite Fantasy Football Tight End in 2015
When you hit the bottom, you can only go up.
Unless there's something below the bottom, of course, but that means what you thought was the bottom was not really the bottom.
That's about the only way we can perceive the season that Vernon Davis had in 2014. Drafted as the fifth tight end off the board in PPR formats last season, Davis didn't live up to the draft-day cost.
Or, to be blunt, he finished 35th in PPR scoring among tight ends.
So, now Davis is being selected as the 26th tight end in best-ball leagues, behind, well, just about everyone who has a semblance of a claim to a starting role.
Sure, Davis had injury issues of his own, and the 49ers offense was pyrite at best -- they ranked 22nd in schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play which quantifies and compares a team's performance based on league-average expectation -- but does he really only offer the upside of being a low-end TE2 in fantasy leagues?
Reasons for Skepticism
There are plenty of reasons why people aren't drafting Davis, and they are surely significant reasons.
Davis caught just 26 passes (including 2 touchdowns) last year. In fact, both of those came in the first quarter of his Week 1 game against the Cowboys, so it's been a while since he has hit the end zone.
His receptions were cut in half from his 2013 total of 52, and fantasy owners, Davis, and the 49ers would have been much more optimistic if his 13 touchdowns were cut in half as well, though I'd have just been intrigued about that half touchdown.
Bad jokes aside, Davis managed just 4.5 PPR points per 100 snaps, which ranked 46th among the 85 tight ends who saw at least 20 snaps per game. Complicating this ineffectiveness, Davis' red zone potential was almost entirely nonexistent. Davis saw just one red zone target, which he converted for a two-yard touchdown.
Blame Colin Kaepernick if you want -- after all, his Passing NEP per drop back of 0.04 tied with Brian Hoyer, Kyle Orton, and Cam Newton for 23rd among the 37 quarterbacks who attempted at least 200 drop backs last season -- but he wasn't bad in the red zone.
Reasons for Optimism
While we're still on the red zone theme, just know that Kaepernick boasted the seventh-best quarterback rating (107.6) among all quarterbacks with at least 20 red zone attempts last season. He tossed just 19 total touchdowns last year, but 11 of them came inside the red zone.
In 2013, Davis scored eight red zone touchdowns while being targeted on 35.3 percent of the 49ers' red zone attempts -- the highest market share among tight ends in the past three seasons. In 2014, his share was just 2.3 percent, tied with teammate Vance McDonald.
Of course, new teammate Torrey Smith hauled in six red zone touchdowns last season, but that was his best mark in the past three years (he had five in 2012 and three in 2013). Simply put, the 49ers shouldn't have too many red zone threats to contend with Davis if he can return to his former glory.
And while Davis was absent in terms of red zone production, he certainly wasn't struggling for snaps. His 59.3 snaps per game ranked ninth among all tight ends last year, and his snap percentage of 78.4 ranked 11th. Combine that with a position-leading average depth of target of 12.4 yards among tight ends with at least 25 percent of team snaps played, and Davis showed potential even during a horrible year.
That depth of target was no fluke, either. Davis's average target depth was also tops at tight end in 2013 (14.3 yards) and second in 2012 (12.4).
That Draft-Day Cost, Though
Even if you're afraid of Kaepernick's bounceback potential, it's quite clear that Davis -- barring an extremely diminished role from new head coach Jim Tomsula's regime -- has the potential to return to some level of success in 2015. He has shown elite red zone potential before, and he's a rare downfield threat at the tight end position.
Even if he doesn't, with an average draft position of TE26, it won't matter if he doesn't realize that elite potential, but his ceiling is higher than his draft-day cost is letting on.