The 49ers reached the NFC Championship for the third consecutive season in 2013, but for the third straight year, they failed to capitalize on a deep playoff run. Heading into 2014, their offense may look a touch different as in previous seasons as they try to keep their championship window open.
2014 49ers Schedule
|5||Kansas City Chiefs|
|6||@||St. Louis Rams|
|9||St. Louis Rams|
|10||@||New Orleans Saints|
|11||@||New York Giants|
|16||San Diego Chargers|
Take anything related to schedule analysis with a chip on your shoulder this far in advance, but for fantasy football, the San Francisco offense doesn’t face many daunting defenses before their bye week. Closing the season, they see Seattle twice in a three week stretch and they stay on the west coast for the final six weeks.
Since Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have come on board to run this offense in 2011, the 49er offense has proceeded with more caution than urgency. With a top defensive unit annually, they have predicated rushing and protecting the football even though they have been effective at scoring. Ranking dead last in offensive plays and 28th in passing yards since this regime came into the fold.
49ers Offense Since 2011
For fantasy owners, you can see why this running game has been the only thing to get attached to recently and it shows even further in the play calling spits under Roman over the past three seasons.
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All of that information makes it hard to get to enthusiastic about the promise of the team opening up the offense finally when they’ve been successful grinding away victories with old fashioned football. By default, it will be hard for them not to increase their passing output based on 2013, but with a healthy Michael Crabtree, the acquisition of Steve Johnson and the franchise turning itself over into the hands of Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco has the personnel to accomplish everything they’ve whispered this offseason.
Gore the Bore
Before we get into the passing weapons, we might as well start with the running game, because it’s not going away. If the running game isn’t going away, then that means Frank Gore still isn’t going away, either. Gore wrapped 2013 with his third consecutive 1,100 yard rushing season with eight touchdowns and more importantly, his third consecutive season in which he played in all 16 games. He finished 22nd at the position in rushing points per attempt, 28th in points per touch, and 15th in non-touchdown fantasy production in his age 30 season. Even though he’s remained relevant, his fantasy output is clearly slowing. A large part of this is attributed to his lack of involvement in the passing game, despite playing nearly every passing down. Here are his per game splits since Roman has taken over the offense.
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After averaging 45 receptions per season during his first six seasons, Gore has just 61 catches total over the past three years. It’s hard to overcome the age of declination for fantasy backs, but even harder for those who don’t catch passes. Since 2009, only four backs have had a top 24 season at the age of 31 or older, and three of those backs caught 35 passes or more during the season. Only Thomas Jones in 2009 beat the trend with 10 receptions, but was aided by the fact he scored 14 touchdowns. Gore has only reached ten touchdowns in a season once in his career. He has yet to relinquish his grip on the shares of rushing attempts, actually seeing a higher volume of the team carries at age 30 than in the previous season.
[table id=162 /]
Given his importance to pass protection and the inexperience left behind him on the depth chart in that area, his share of early down runs should decline a bit in 2014, but Gore isn’t going anywhere for this upcoming season and is firmly planted as a low end RB2 in standard leagues while better suited as an RB3 in PPR provided he’s healthy.
With the training camp loss of Kendall Hunter and the uncertainty still surrounding sophomore back Marcus Lattimore, rookie running back Carlos Hyde has a pretty clear path to receiving carries spelling Gore. Hyde was a late bloomer in college and wasn’t the athlete that other big backs in this class are, but he can catch the ball better than those other big backs and this system and offensive line are a fit for his skills. Nothing more than a handcuff to Gore, Hyde is worth a late round grab because of the situation he could inherit. Just because Gore has fought off declination recently, that doesn’t mean that now is the time to stop making a hedge on him finally falling off.
Hyde’s selection in the second round a year after the team chose Lattimore doesn’t bode well for how the organization views his recovery from a devastating knee injury in 2012. Best guess right now is that the team plays it really cautious with Lattimore for 2014, meaning a few spot carries here and there if he’s active, which may not be the case on most Sundays if a pass catching back who can also play special teams is needed. At best, he’s a speculation add, but one that isn’t expected to make a significant dent in fantasy circles for this season.
A Healthy Passing Game?
Part of the reason the 49ers have had to play conservatively goes beyond their offensive philosophy. They also have had an extremely shallow pool of depth at the receiver position the past three years littered with dud draft picks and bust free agent plays. Over the past three seasons, the most targets a non-Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree, or Anquan Boldin has seen in a season is the 57 by Mario Manningham in 2012. Because of their lack of depth and talent, the 49ers used three receiver sets on only 26 percent of their offensive plays in 2013, while league average was 50.3 percent.
Everything starts with the return of a full strength Michael Crabtree, who returned in week 12 last season from an Achilles early last summer. He and Kaepernick have always had something special, here’s the damage that he’s done in the 18 starts he and Kaepernick have had together including the postseason.
|16 Games Extrapolation||137.6||84.8||1214.4||8|
Those per game numbers are close to creating a fantasy WR1 over a full season. Entering 2014 healthy and in the final year of his contract, Crabtree will be counted on to carry over what we’ve gotten in fragments from him to live up to his draft position this summer.
He may not be leaned on as much because of the way Anquan Boldin performed once he returned to the offense. JJ Zachariason believes Boldin was the most underrated receiver in the league a season ago, as he posted his first 1,000 yard season since 2009 and scored his most touchdowns since 2010. Only Vincent Jackson (31.9 percent) had a larger share of his team’s total targets than Boldin’s 30.9 percent a year ago, and he was a top performer in terms of being a reliable target with his opportunities. He was also a top seven performer in the red zone and inside the 10-yard line, converting seven of 15 targets for scores.
He was reliant on enormous performances a year ago to inflate his overall production, posting only two top 24 PPR weeks from weeks two through 11 last season. But once Crabtree returned, he played his best football. From week 13 on, Boldin had three games with 90 or more receiving yards and had at least seven targets every week when Crabtree played. Using the Games Splits App at RotoViz, here are his splits when Crabtree played and keep in mind that the right column has his bonanza versus Green Bay to start the season included.
With the addition of Johnson and Crabtree full strength, there’s almost no way that his target share will hold anywhere near where it was in 2013. His season totals last year were most likely an outlier out of necessity and it’s hard to select him over the upside options surrounding his draft tier. At that juncture of your draft, you’ll already have at least three to four receivers, so swinging on the high ceiling plays is recommended. If he falls really far in your draft, don’t be hesitant to grab him on the principle that if the volume really increases in this passing game, he will still be involved a great deal.
With Boldin and Crabtree locked into the two starting receiver spots, Johnson stands to see the lowest volume of his career. Never a high end fantasy option to begin with, he’s easily coming off of the worst year of his career, as well. Look at his Career Graph since 2010.
Johnson is really the kind of add you hate to see for fantasy because he represents far more real football value than we’re likely to see from him on the fantasy front barring an injury to Crabtree, Boldin, or Davis. Unlikely to see near the required volume needed to propel him into weekly viability, he’s best left on waivers or in best ball leagues as depth in which you don’t have to play the guessing game in which he will have his usable weeks.
The last piece of the passing game is Vernon Davis who is coming off a season in which he was the first tight end in NFL history to record two 12 touchdown seasons in his career. Davis was an elite fantasy target last year, as a target to him was worth 73 percent more fantasy points than any other receiver in the offense. From weeks six through 15, he had more receiving yardage (581 yards) and the same amount of touchdowns (8) as Jimmy Graham on only four fewer receptions and he had nine top 12 PPR weeks despite missing an entire game and leaving two others with injuries.
He’s also easily the best vertical target in this group of receiving options. Out of all players in the NFL, only Josh Gordon, Calvin Johnson and Torrey Smith had higher yards per reception than Davis’ 16.4 YPR out of all players with at least 50 receptions. Not just a field stretcher, he’s also been the second best tight end in the red zone over the past three seasons.
Top 12 TE in Red Zone Conversion Rate Since 2011
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*Min 15 targets
Davis has always been criminally underused, never reaching 100 targets in a season under this regime despite their consistent lack of options. With two receivers healthy, he tends to really get lost in the game plan, relegated to playing a role in the red zone and as a vertical playmaker. Last season was no different once Crabtree returned.
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Whereas Boldin was aided by Crabtree’s absence, Davis became a niche player once again. Now with Johnson on board, he stands to become more volatile than ever. Davis is really expensive, and more costly than several tight ends that stand to command a much larger share of their teams’ passing game. Still a player that will have some monster output, it’s hard to endorse his selection over key contributors at the receiver position at that stage in the draft.
Kap in the Hat
With as much postseason football the 49ers have played recently, it’s still easy to overlook that Colin Kaepernick is a player with only 23 regular season starts at quarterback. In his first full season as a starter, he failed to lift up to fantasy expectations dictated by his 2013 ADP.
He was a boom or bust option all season long, posting seven quality starts and seven starts that were considered fantasy duds. He also beat up on the lighter opponents on his schedule, something that he’s been known to do in his short time as a starter. His top 12 scoring fantasy weeks in 2013 came versus Jacksonville, Washington, Tennessee, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Green Bay. When forced into situations when he had to throw, all of his efficiency stats were cut in half.
He still did a lot well, finishing right behind Drew Brees in adjusted yards per aimed attempt (AY/AA) and tied for eighth in terms of fantasy points per aimed throw (FPAT). In terms of being a dual threat, he was tied with Cam Newton for the most games with 20 or more rushing yards and had five games with 40 or more rushing yards. Despite that output, he relied on his legs less to score fantasy points than in 2012. After 41.1 percent of his scoring came from rushing totals in 2012, that number dropped to 28.9 percent a season ago.
The addition of Johnson and the full strength return of Crabtree should benefit him a great deal. Last season, Vernon Davis and Anquan Boldin accounted for 80.2 percent of Kaepernick’s fantasy output passing. To put that in perspective, Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron accounted for 65.1 percent of the fantasy points generated by the trio of Cleveland quarterbacks.
If you’re having a hard time paying up for Crabtree or Davis, Kaepernick is the piece you buy in this offense to fight some of the ambiguity that should be created among the pass catchers. There are still likely going to be lean weeks in which the volume just doesn’t exist, but he does have room left over to create some equity for where he’s going in drafts. As you know throughout these, I’m not an advocate for the mid round quarterback, so Kaepernick is a player I’m more apt to pursue in auctions rather than pay his price tag in serpentine drafts.
2014 Fantasy Relevant Projections
Best Option to Crash through their projection without injury: Crabtree – We’ve seen what he can be in doses, but if his target share is large enough, he can flirt with top 15 numbers.
Biggest Risk to fall through their projection: Davis – he could go in either direction depending on the weekly game plan, or could just get lost in the shuffle entirely while carrying a costly price tag for those selecting tight ends in the middle of the draft.
Best Waiver Wire Option: Johnson – the receiver depth on this roster has been exposed for three consecutive seasons, if Boldin or Crabtree were to go down, Johnson would inherit a role that would elevate his weekly stock.
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