The hump is right in their grasp, but the San Francisco 49ers just can’t seem to get over it.
Three straight NFC Championship visits, one of which ultimately led to a Super Bowl birth. They are so good each and every year, and once again, the 49ers are an early favorite to take home the Lombardi Trophy in 2014. A burgeoning quarterback, top-five running game and an elite defense, the 49ers have all the pieces to be the best team in football.
And perhaps one of the best in fantasy football, too.
No many quarterbacks have as much upside or potential than Colin Kaepernick. Blazing speed, terrific arm strength and a powerful runner, Kaepernick has all of the tools to be an elite fantasy passer. Last season, he got off to a bit of a slow start, throwing just five touchdowns in his first four games. However, Kaepernick still finished as the number 11 fantasy quarterback during his first full season as the 49ers’ starter. Any quarterback with his type of mobility is automatically fantasy relevant, as he’s rushed for 939 yards over the last two seasons, to go along with nine touchdowns. He is always going to be a threat with his legs, but I like him for his arm this season for one reason.
Kaepernick missed his go-to guy last year, as the 49ers only had Crabtree for five regular season games, as he recovered from an Achilles injury. But when Kaepernick got him back, it was gangbusters. Kaepernick averaged almost four more fantasy points per game with Crabtree in the lineup, and, according to CBS Sports leagues, in the 12 games Crabtree missed last year, Kaepernick posted 19 or more fantasy points just five times. However, during the eight games (including playoffs) that Crabtree was available, Kaepernick posted 19 or more fantasy points in seven of those contests. And, via Jamey Eisenberg, dating back to 2012, Kaepernick posted 20 or more fantasy points in six of his 10 starts– all with Crabtree, of course. The guy has had a very positive impact on Kaepernick’s numbers, and he continues to improve each season in the league.
Also, via ESPN Stats and Info, when Crabtree returned in Week 13 of last year, Kaepernick was 3rd in the NFL in total QBR from that time period on (76.9). But still, there are weapons outside of Crabtree to help Kaepernick succeed, and last year, he quietly ranked ninth in fantasy points on vertical passes (38). At age 26, Kaepernick is about to just hit the prime of his career, so a top-five finish not only seems possible, but inevitable, too.
Seriously, if you want to be a fantasy writer, just predict the season that Frank Gore actually does fall off, and I’m sure you’ll be set. The guy just keeps defying logic. At age 30 last year, Gore posted his third consecutive season of 16 games and at least eight rushing scores. He’s taken a beating, playing in the toughest division in football, serving as the lead back for arguably the league’s run-heaviest team. The 49ers have ranked inside the top-five in rushing attempts in each of the last three seasons, while Gore has ranked inside the top-12 in carries over the last two years. Meanwhile, San Francisco drafted Carlos Hyde this past May, and all indications are that they plan to use him quite a bit. So this has to be the year Gore falls off, right?
The early word out of San Francisco is that Gore might see 50 fewer carries this year, and considering he had 276 last year, that’s a bit of a concern. There have also been some rumblings about Hyde seeing goal line work, as they try to preserve Gore for the playoffs and such. Then there’s also Marcus Lattimore, who the 49ers don’t want to give up on, as well as Kendall Hunter still in the mix. If Gore wants to stay in San Francisco, this is his time to prove it. At age 31, entering the final year of his contract and with young talent behind him, Gore may need to show that he still has plenty left in the tank.
I already talked about Crabtree’s impact on Kaepernick, but when the quarterback is one, Crabtree will reap the most benefits as the primary target. During the playoffs last year, Crabtree hauled in 11 passes of 20 yards or more (via ESPN), showing that he still has that big play potential in this offense. And we all know that Kaepernick mainly has eyes for Crabtree. During the final five games of the season, Crabtree averaged 6.6 targets per game, and that was him being eased back into the offense. During the three playoff games, he averaged almost 10 targets per contest. Even in an offense that only threw the ball 417 times last season (last), Crabtree has WR1 upside, but for a WR2 price tag. That’s very appealing to me, and as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll be a top-15 fantasy wideout.
Meanwhile, coming off a revival, Anquan Boldin is due for some regression. He accumulated his highest number of targets (129) and yards (1,179) since way back in 2006. Of course, he was the number one receiver in this offense by a longshot with Crabtree sidelined, but not only is he back, but the team also acquired Stevie Johnson from the Bills, who will certainly have a role in this offense.
Thanks to a 13-touchdown season, Vernon Davis finished as the number two tight end in fantasy. Nine of those 13 scores came in the red zone, as he made his presence felt up close with his size and athleticism. However, can he maintain that efficiency this year? He converted nine of his 21 red zone targets into touchdowns, a pretty impressive number. And, again, that was without Crabtree, who eats away at his production when on the field. Using the RotoViz Game Splits App, I took a closer look.
Davis will be drafted as a top-five fantasy tight end, but I’m not willing to select him in the fourth or fifth round. I feel that he is due for some regression, and while he’s an elite option, I’d rather stack up on receivers and running backs and grab a tight end with similar upside later on.