Two seasons ago, the 49ers' Vernon Davis went from being an inconsistent, me-first performer to one of the first names mentioned among fantasy breakthrough performers after tying the single-season league record for most TD catches with 13.
Last season, while his numbers were significantly down after signing a new deal that made him the league's highest-paid tight end — he had 56 catches for 914 yards and seven TDs — Davis might have been a better, more complete performer than the previous season.
While still managing to lead the Niners in catches, receiving yards and TDs — the first tight end in franchise history to accomplish that feat — and register a career-high 16.3 yards per catch, which was the best average among NFL tight ends, Davis also had only a handful of dropped passes, after mishandling 13 passes the previous season.
He remained a huge big-play threat, particularly out of his signature seam route, hauling in 13 catches of more than 25 yards, which ranked first among NFL tight ends and tied for fifth in the entire league.
Davis also committed only two penalties, 10 less than the previous season, and he very willingly took on more of a leadership role in what could not have been a more tempestuous environment — the best example coming when he chewed out Niners WR Michael Crabtree in a late-offseason walk-through for displaying a less-than-stellar work ethic.
Both Crabtree, the Niners' projected No. 1 wideout, and Davis must adapt to the team's ninth offensive coordinator in nine years — Greg Roman, who followed new head coach Jim Harbaugh from Stanford.
Most close team observers suspect Davis will continue to be the Niners' most productive receiving weapon in a West Coast offense designed to get the ball to the receivers as quickly as possible for the following reasons:
• Crabtree continues to send shaky signals and has yet to show that he can be a consistent big-play threat the caliber of Davis, who has much better natural tools.
• Davis won't be double-teamed as much as he was early last season, when deep-threat WR Ted Ginn Jr. was out for a prolonged stretch with a knee injury.
• Harbaugh really loves to employ tall, athletic, versatile tight ends. He used three different ones (Coby Fleener, Zach Ertz and Konrad Reuland) to totally fluster Virginia Tech in Stanford's 40-12 Orange Bowl victory.
Of course, Harbaugh's affinity for tight ends also bodes well for the very talented and athletic Delanie Walker. The Niners' backup tight end had his moments last season — he had a team-high 80 receiving yards in a Week 10 win over the Rams — and he has lost 15 pounds this offseason in anticipation of being used more in the slot.
Is it possible Walker could steal some of Davis' fantasy thunder in 2011?
Even if he does, Davis should provide plenty of firepower as one of the league's most explosive fantasy tight ends.