The San Francisco 49ers had an up and down season last year, but seemed to find some momentum when Mike Singletary took over. He seemed to instill some confidence in this team who was lacking an abundance of play-makers, but the cupboard isn’t so bare this year and they should be a much more explosive offense then they were last year.
QB: Shaun Hill, Alex Smith, Nate Davis
RB: Frank Gore, Glenn Coffee, Kory Sheets
WR: Josh Morgan, Isaac Bruce, Michael Crabtree, Brandon Jones, Jason Hill
TE: Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker
PK: Joe Nedney
Quarterback: This is a QB battle that is still going on. Shaun Hill took over at the tail end of last year and was very sharp. His 13 TDs in eight starts was very impressive if you extrapolate those types of numbers over 16 games. If you stretch his numbers out your looking at 4,000 yards and 26 TDs, which isn’t bad at all, but that wasn’t enough for him to be handed the starting gig. Alex Smith is the former #1 pick who has the support of the GM, and he’ll get every opportunity he can to win this job back. By all accounts he’s looked the best he has in his entire career this off-season; he’s finally healthy, and you get the feeling the Niners want to give him one last shot. Jimmy Raye is the new offensive coordinator and he’s installing more of a power running scheme, not a passer-friendly offense no matter who is behind center. While they need someone to make some down-field throws and plays, I wouldn’t expect either guy to put up huge stats. If your drafting already it’s tough to put much faith into either guy, because they aren’t going to announce a starter until Week 3 of preseason, and even then that guy is going to be on a short leash, so I’d monitor this situation and think about taking a flier on who wins out at the tail end of your draft or on waivers. The competition might bring out the best in the winner, who could be a nice bye week replacement, but as long as Alex Smith continues to play well I think he’ll win the job if for nothing else he was the #1 pick and that means a lot in the NFL world.
Running Back: The RB position starts and ends with Frank Gore. Gore is coming off his worst season across the board in three years, and seems to be getting further away from the All-Pro form he was at in 2006, when he totaled 2,000 yards with 61 receptions. Still there is a lot to like about the runner this year. Glenn Coffee was taken in the third round, but by all accounts he’s just going to be someone to keep Gore fresh. Gore will still get 20 carries a week and a handful of receptions, as well as all of his goal-line carries, and those runners are hard to come by. Off-season reports out of San Fran are that he’s looking as good as he ever has, looks very explosive and healthy. The added weapons on the perimeter are only going to make life easier on him. He’s been going late in the first round of many drafts and that’s incredible value at that point. I’m not expecting 2,000 total yards again, but 1,500+ sounds about right for him; if you’re in a PPR league he’s even more valuable. The offense continues to go through him and he has the potential to carry your fantasy football team. The downside with him is touchdowns, as he’s never totaled 10 in a season before, but the upside is there with him.
Wide Receiver: When Michael Crabtree fell into the Niners’ lap at pick #10 in the NFL Draft, he was supposed to change their fortunes at this position, but things haven’t gone as planned with his lengthy contract negotiations. There were reports of him being a prima donna before the draft, and he’s done nothing to dispel those notions thus far. If you’ve had your draft already, and spent a semi-early pick on Crabtree, you better hope it was a keeper league because it’s looking like a wasted pick at this point. Rookie WRs rarely have an impact big enough to help your fantasy team — when it does happen it’s not the norm, but when they do they were the guys who got into OTAs and training camps early, picked up the offense, stayed healthy, and had a great opportunity in front of them. Crabtree has been hurt since before the draft, wasn’t able to participate in any OTAs or mini-camps or run any routes with the QBs, and missed almost all of training camp. He came from a spread offense at Texas Tech that was going to give him a bigger learning curve then a guy coming from a pro-style system, and it’s not like he has a Jay Cutler or Donovan McNabb to catch passes from. Basically his rookie season is going to be a wash, and he has a long uphill battle to even crack the starting lineup at this point. He will probably get some work late in the season to get some meaningful reps, but he’s so far behind right now that expecting him to produce anything this year is beyond optimism. He’s a classic example of how people can draft on hype sometimes, and while everyone was over-drafting Crabtree they were overlooking Josh Morgan, who is primed to break out this season.
Morgan was a guy who came in as a rookie last year and impressed coaches in OTAs and through training camp with his play. He was able to pick up the offense quickly and played well into the preseason. Had it not been for a staph infection and hamstring injury, he would have been more on people’s radar, but use that to your advantage on draft day and take this #1 WR at a great value. I’ve been firmly in his corner all off-season and feel strongly that he can produce like a WR3 with upside, even if he doesn’t look pretty in your starting lineup early on. He is definitely someone you want to target, and Crabtree holding out only made his potential that much better this year — there was talk of moving Crabtree to split end, but for now Morgan has that position locked down as the go-to guy in the offense, so don’t be surprised when he steps on the scene in a big way. Isaac Bruce is the other starter opposite Morgan, and he just seems to keep going at his age. He’s a solid buy in leagues but you never know how long he’ll continue to produce at a high level, and towards the end of last year the young guys started to pass him up. Brandon Jones was having a great camp and vying for a starting job, but he’s out eight weeks with a shoulder injury, and that sets him back. Third-year WR Jason Hill has started off slower then people expected, so he could be in a battle for a roster spot all of a sudden. After Morgan, you’re taking a risk on any of these WRs. Bruce isn’t a bad flier late to fill in on bye weeks, but he doesn’t have any upside left to him at this point, I’d pass on any of the other guys including Crabtree, who other then name value has nothing going for him this year. You’ll see the real value with him next year.
Tight End: Vernon Davis is a former top-10 pick who has never put together the type of season everyone has expected. Every year people say “this is the year,” and it never happens. Last year, he even took a step back, and his best season to date has been 500 yards. He’s always struggled with the things about the TE position that make a guy great, such as route running and catching passes, and he’s been a stout blocker but not the game changer at the TE position most felt would come with development. This is another year where people are saying he could come around, but I’m not expecting it to happen. He’s never been a crisp route-runner. Witten ran a high 4.5 and seems to get open every time, while Davis ran a sub 4.4 and still has problems separating from defenders. Davis is a workout warrior who wowed everyone at the Combine, but he’s lacking the football skills needed to take the next step. I don’t think another year is the answer for him. He’s not a bad late-round pick as a second TE, because he has some upside, but I wouldn’t expect more then 500 yards and a few TDs out of him. I’d much rather take someone like Brent Celek or even Martellus Bennett, who will both probably go later and out-produce Davis.
IDP: Patrick Willis is still a beast, and should be the most sought after LB in IDP play. Having one of the games best LBs as his head coach, showing him how to play the game, can only help. Willis is head and shoulders above the rest of the LB IDPs and provides immense upside to get better every year. He’s been everything the Niners felt he would be. Nate Clements is a fine pick in leagues where you start DBs, because he’s always around the ball and has never shied away from tackles; in fact, he’s one of the best tackling corners in the league. He’s tallied over 90 tackles twice, and the fact that he’s a ball-hawk and can pick off a handful of passes and make a play with the ball in his hands makes him someone who could pay dividends, especially at the CB position.
Fortunes could easily change for the Niners this year: they have a new head coach, who is instilling a new mentality into which the players seem to be buying. Ever since he took over last year, they seemed to play much harder and won games, so I expect them to make a playoff run. For that to happen, some of their key play-makers need to step up to the occasion. Now, this team isn’t full of star-studded fantasy players, but guys like Gore and Morgan I would have no problem starting this year on any of my fantasy teams with confidence, and you have some sneaky plays at QB and TE, as well as a few week’s worth of good games for Bruce.
Todd Ransom is one of a growing number of fantasy experts who write for the Cafe. You can catch up with Todd in the Cafe's forums where he posts under the name of LS2throwed.
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