Late-season wins at Seattle and Denver set the stage for what could be an exciting 2007 for the 49ers. For the first time in recent memory, the front office spent significant cash on offseason improvements, including $80 million to lure cornerback Nate Clements from Buffalo. Now, expectations are high that this team could make the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
As for fantasy excitement, last season it centered around Frank Gore, who topped 2,000 total yards to become one of fantasy's biggest difference-makers. But this season there appears to be more gold in them there hills. Besides Gore, quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Vernon Davis and an improving defense should provide fantasy rosters with some surprises.
Of course, it always helps when your most common opponents reside in the defense-challenged NFC West. And when you can grab a receiver like Darrell Jackson from a division rival, even better. We're not ready to invoke Joe Montana's name just yet, but a return to the Jeff Garcia years looks possible.
Projected draft round Player Round Alex Smith, QB 13 Frank Gore, RB 1 Michael Robinson, RB 15 Darrell Jackson, WR 5 Arnaz Battle, WR 12 Vernon Davis, TE 7 Joe Nedney, K 17 Defense/special teams DND Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Frank Gore, RB. Burnout is the only thing you have to worry about with Gore because he runs so hard, he just might run himself right into the dirt someday. His all-out style leads to injuries, but fortunately for his owners, he suffered only minor dents last season on his way to 2,180 total yards. It's fun for fantasy leaguers to hear him boast about 2,000 rushing yards and to find out that he's working out like a fiend this summer. He certainly has the attitude you want in your workhorse No. 1 back. Provided he stays healthy, he could be the most valuable fantasy back this side of LT.
Darrell Jackson, WR. The 49ers got tired of Antonio Bryant's act, so they brought in a receiver who has a better track record. Jackson is an immediate upgrade for San Francisco, but fantasy owners should keep in mind he hasn't topped 1,000 yards since 2004 thanks to knee and toe injuries. He'll be the 49ers' unquestioned No. 1 target and will enjoy it when Vernon Davis attracts defensive attention in the middle of the field, but be careful about making Jackson your No. 1.
Vernon Davis, TE. Davis' rookie season never took off thanks to a broken leg that forced him to miss six games. But in the season's final weeks he showed flashes of the big-play ability that caused the 49ers to use the No. 6 overall pick on him. He often is compared to the Chargers' Antonio Gates, but Davis isn't as big nor is he at that level yet. That said, Davis is primed for a breakout season, and he's a great option once the elite tight ends are off the draft board. Key additions: LB Tully Banta-Cain, CB Nate Clements, WR Darrell Jackson, WR Ashley Lelie.
Key losses: WR Antonio Bryant, TE Eric Johnson.
Alex Smith, QB. Smith improved dramatically over his rookie season, but let's face it, he had nowhere to go but up after a one-touchdown, 11-interception performance in 2005. Still, there's something to be said about a guy who can take a licking and keep on ticking. Smith remained patient and poised in Year 2, and now he is in position to take the next step in his development. The addition of Jackson and improved health for Davis will help Smith move forward. Smith is a sleeper as your No. 2 fantasy quarterback.
Joe Nedney, K. Nedney has the leg strength to hit from beyond 50 yards, but he struggled with his accuracy last season (six misses). However, as long as the 49ers' offense continues to experience some red-zone struggles, Nedney will remain a solid bye-week fill-in. With any improvement from him and/or the Niners, though, and he's an every-week starter.
Nate Clements, CB. The 49ers signed Clements to an $80 million deal to be their shutdown cornerback. That's a lot of money, but it could turn out to be well spent if he can improve the defense's major weakness. He hasn't missed a start in five seasons and is capable in run support (70-plus tackles in each of the past three seasons). But opposing quarterbacks will avoid throwing his way, thus limiting his value in IDP leagues to that of a mid-level option.
Arnaz Battle, WR. Battle enjoyed his most productive season to date, but that amounted to only 686 yards and three touchdowns. Apparently, the 49ers weren't impressed, because they brought in Ashley Lelie and rookie Jason Hill to fight with him for the No. 2 receiver spot. Battle might be the most reliable option in that bunch, but that isn't saying much. Battle is one of those receivers who will continually cycle through your league's waiver wire.
Walt Harris, CB. Harris had a career year and led the NFC with eight interceptions. For most fantasy owners, that would be a signal to stay away from him, because he's potential bust material. But the 49ers' addition of Clements ensures that Harris will see plenty of balls thrown his way. Target him as a backup corner in IDP leagues that reward interceptions.
Defense/special teams. Last season, this unit was a sieve against the pass, and it wasn't much better against the run. But it strived to fix those problems by signing Clements, using a first-round pick on linebacker Patrick Willis and making other additions (safety Michael Lewis, tackle Aubrayo Franklin and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain) that could turn out to be shrewd moves. The pieces are in place for improvement, so fantasy leaguers should keep the 49ers in mind as a potential in-season pickup.
Patrick Willis, LB. The Niners are talking about Willis being the future stud of their 3-4 defense. At Ole Miss, he was all over the field making plays, and San Francisco hopes to use his athleticism to its advantage. But he's a rookie and could start out in a nickel linebacker role, so IDP players shouldn't invest much in him -- at least not initially in non-keeper leagues.
Michael Robinson, RB. When Gore was having fumbling problems early last season, Robinson stepped in to get some goal-line carries. The highlight was a two-touchdown performance in Week 3 against the Eagles. But those were the only touchdowns Robinson scored all season; he finished with just 38 carries. However, it was enough to catapult Robinson past Maurice Hicks on the team's depth chart, so choose Robinson as your late-round handcuff to Gore.
Ashley Lelie, WR. Since posting 1,084 receiving yards with Denver in 2004, Lelie has been a disappointment. But now he has a golden opportunity to revive his career. Problem is, a quadriceps injury already has caused Lelie to lose ground to Arnaz Battle this offseason. Aloha can only mean goodbye with this University of Hawaii product. Leave him on the waiver wire until he proves otherwise.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: You could strike gold with potential bargains Vernon Davis ($3.85 million) and the 49ers defense ($2 million). Davis is priced the same as the Colts' Dallas Clark, but Davis will be a bigger part of his team's offense. And while you should take the wait-and-see approach with the Niners' D, you should be ready to pounce on the second-cheapest defense in our game.
TO KNOW LIST
Coaching: The 49ers' biggest offseason loss came when offensive coordinator Norv Turner left to become the Chargers' head coach. Taking over is Jim Hostler, a first-time coordinator who was the team's quarterbacks coach last season. Expect a similar approach, but Smith won't get to rely on Turner's expertise.
Defensively, the 49ers are closer to having the necessary personnel to successfully run Mike Nolan's preferred 3-4 scheme. Adding Clements and bolstering the linebacking corps with Willis makes this a more athletic group. Franklin will strengthen the middle of the line. If the defense jells, Manny Lawson could be an IDP league sleeper.
Offensive line: The 49ers favor running behind the left side of Jonas Jennings and Larry Allen. Center Eric Heitmann is solid, but he is returning from a broken leg. Right guard Justin Smiley made strides in his third season, and rookie Joe Staley will challenge Kwame Harris at right tackle. Provided Jennings and Allen stay healthy -- not a given considering Jennings is coming off shoulder surgery and Allen will be 36 -- the line will be strong in the running game. But in order to improve on last year's mediocre pass blocking, the right side must come together.
Schedule analysis: Facing the weak defenses in the NFC West provides the foundation to a fantasy-friendly schedule. San Francisco opens on Monday night against the Cardinals before playing the Rams in Week 2. And in Weeks 10-12, the 49ers finish their second go-around with NFC West opponents just in time for your playoff run. Potential stumbling blocks are in Week 3 at Pittsburgh and Week 5 vs. Baltimore. But drawing the NFC South doesn't look as tough as it used to be. Plus, the 49ers are home for all three games during your fantasy playoffs (Weeks 14-16). Fantasy Strength of Schedule: 30th toughest (or third easiest).