From Jim Harbaugh to Aldon Smith to Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers have certainly made their fair share of headlines throughout the offseason. This is probably not what a team like the 49ers needs, as they are attempting to get over the hump and win that Lombardi Trophy after being so close the past few years.
Regardless of all the turmoil surrounding the organization, San Francisco has what it takes to be one of the best teams in the conference once again. They have a great head coach, one of the best defenses in the NFL, and have a playmaker in fourth year QB Colin Kaepernick. General manager Trent Baalke has also done an excellent job at maneuvering in the draft to accumulate extra picks and grab great value in the draft over the last couple seasons. That has ultimately resulted in exceptional depth throughout the roster, allowing San Francisco to draft several "red-shirt" players over the past two years in the first few rounds.
Despite winning 36 games over the past three seasons, the 49ers are not loaded with fantasy studs. There is, however, an interesting position battle for the backup running back position and there is more depth at the receiver position than there has been in the past. Kaepernick is also an interesting guy in fantasy in 2014 as the 49ers have said they will look to open up the playbook a little more. Let's delve into these topics and more in my fantasy preview of the San Francisco 49ers.
Quarterbacks- Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Josh Johnson
Kaepernick has led the 49ers to three straight NFC Championship games. He is the unquestioned starter for a team that has historically ran the ball often. Trailing only the Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers were third in the league in rushing attempts in 2013. While Kaepernick may not get the passing attempts of a guy like Drew Brees or Peyton Manning, he still figures to be a valuable fantasy commodity. The 49ers will likely look to get Kaepernick on the edge where he can become dangerous as a runner and passer. With the ability to beat you with his legs or his arm, he should be in the low-end QB1 conversation. He was the 9th highest scoring quarterback last year in standard scoring leagues and now gets a healthy Michael Crabtree for 16 games and the services of veteran Stevie Johnson, who was acquired on day two of the draft.
San Francisco shocked a lot of people when they traded for first round bust Blaine Gabbert. Coach Jim Harbaugh must have seen something in him that would warrant giving up a 6th round pick. He figures to be the backup while McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Josh Johnson fight for the #3 quarterback job. Bethel-Thompson was an undrafted free agent in 2011 who has yet to take an NFL snap while Johnson is a great athlete who is probably most well known for being Josh Freeman's backup in Tampa Bay from 2009 to 2011.
Running Backs- Frank Gore, Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter, Marcus Lattimore, LaMichael James
This is a fantasy situation that I will be monitoring closely when it comes to training camp reports and preseason games. Gore figures to once again be the main ball carrier for a team that has taken a running back in the draft in each of the past four seasons. But he is entering the final year of his deal and is 31 years old, making him a longshot to be brought back in 2015. So how will the backfield shape up with Gore out of the picture? This is an important question for dynasty owners to ponder entering the 2014 season.
Just like in 2013, expect the coaching staff to monitor Gore's touches throughout the season to keep him fresh come playoff time. I would expect Gore's numbers to decline just a bit and would put him more in the RB3/flex radar instead of the RB2 range he has been the past couple years. After spending a second round pick on former Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, I would give him the edge for the backup job. He has the tools to be an effective three-down back at the next level and is an intriguing dynasty prospect for a team that runs the ball effectively.
Former five star recruit and South Carolina standout Marcus Lattimore is coming off a gruesome knee injury in which he tore his ACL, MCL, and PCL. He was redshirted a season ago but has taken part in OTAs and should get a chance this year. With a long history of injuries and a crowded backfield, I would stay away from Lattimore in all redraft formats. Kendall Hunter was Gore's main backup last season but will have his work cut out for him this year. But with several years of experience and a career 4.6 yards per carry average, his roster spot should not be in jeopardy. Former second round pick LaMichael James, whom the 49ers tried to trade on draft day, figures to be on the roster bubble. He is likely the fifth back on the depth chart and has struggled to make a difference within the offense in his two seasons with the team.
Wide Receivers- Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, Stevie Johnson, Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, Brandon Lloyd, Jon Baldwin
San Francisco has suddenly found themselves with a very talented group of receivers. Crabtree figures to be back to 100% after tearing his Achilles tendon in May of 2013. That should give the offense more balance as he was always the favorite target of Kaepernick when healthy. Boldin doesn't have the foot speed of your typical starting NFL receiver but is still extremely effective as he uses his strength and veteran savvy to create separation down the field. There may not be anyone in the league better at getting away with a little push off from time to time. He should remain on the WR3/WR4 radar in typical standard leagues.
The 49ers also added veteran Stevie Johnson on draft weekend after sending a conditional 2015 fourth round pick to Buffalo. While this will give San Francisco a talented trio of wideouts, Johnson's fantasy value will suffer from a season ago. He will have to battle Crabtree, Boldin, and tight end Vernon Davis for targets in a run oriented offense. Johnson could still be worth a very late round pick in fantasy leagues. I would prefer taking a high upside rookie at that point though.
There should be an interesting competition for the #4 receiver. 2013 fourth rounder Quinton Patton saw limited action a year ago as he suffered a foot fracture that sidelined him for most of the season. He will have to compete with this year's fourth rounder Bruce Ellington. Ellington is undersized at 5'9'' but is an explosive athlete who figures to be in the mix immediately for kick return duties. Both of these players should only be considered in the deepest of formats or in dynasty leagues. Some may believe former fantasy star Brandon Lloyd will be in the mix for the fourth receiver job but after being out of football for a full year and a contract that includes no guaranteed money, I would not be surprised if he doesn't make the final 53-man roster. Baldwin is a former first round bust who may get his chance with another team, but I find it hard to believe he would make this talented roster even after taking a pay cut in February.
Tight Ends- Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, Garrett Celek
There has certainly been a lot of drama surrounding the 49ers this offseason, and Vernon Davis has recently added to the chaos as he has decided to hold out. He has skipped OTAs and mandatory minicamp in hopes of getting a raise on his $4.7 million salary. Coming off of a season in which he went for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns, he definitely has a strong case to get paid. Davis enters this season as one of the top tight ends once again, ranking fifth for me behind Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, and Jordan Cameron.
San Francisco reportedly wants to become a more balanced offense in 2014 and that should only help Davis' fantasy outlook, even after the addition of veteran Stevie Johnson. While it is difficult to imagine that Davis will replicate the 13 TDs from a season ago, he will still get his share of targets to make him attractive in rounds 5 or 6 of standard fantasy drafts.
Second year player Vance McDonald enters 2014 with a very bleak fantasy outlook. After being taken in the second round a season ago, he showed very little as a receiver in 2013, catching just 8 balls for 119 yards. He also recorded three drops in very limited targets, according to PFF. McDonald was used more as a blocker last year and I expect much of the same this season, unless of course if Vernon Davis was to hold out into the regular season. Garrett Celek, the younger brother of Eagles tight end Brent Celek, was a limited contributor in 2013, but will likely make the team as third tight end.
The 49ers were just one score away from knocking off the Seahawks and heading to the Super Bowl just a season ago. While there were certainly some offseason distractions, they clearly remain one of the more talented teams in the entire league. One area of concern could be the defense, as injuries and a looming suspension to Aldon Smith could be a major blow.
Despite the weird structure of Colin Kaepernick's deal, the 49ers essentially have locked up their franchise quarterback. As a result, I would not be surprised to see them start to slowly change their offensive philosophy to utilize their star quarterback. Five time Pro-Bowl running back Frank Gore is 31 and on the decline and the pass catchers as a whole should be improved.