QB Alex Smith
Smith gets yet another lease on his NFL career with new head coach Jim Harbaugh now leading the 49ers. Not wanting to trust the offense to a rookie and not willing to risk acquiring a high-profile veteran, Harbaugh saw the tape of Smith and decided that he could work with him. Reminds me of all those people who think they can turn around a struggling business. What are you adding to the mix? Why are you so smart? Jim, how are you going to make Alex what he has yet to be—a solid NFL quarterback? Smith’s strength is his ability to move in the pocket and extend plays, but that doesn’t mean much because his accuracy isn’t very good, particularly on deep passes. Look for him to hold off rookie second-round pick Colin Kaepernick in the battle to be the opening-day starter, but there’s no guarantee Smith will hold onto the job for the entire year. He’s a low-end fantasy backup, at best.
QB Colin Kaepernick
The 49ers used a 2011 second-round pick on Kaepernick, making him their quarterback of the future. Or maybe that’s quarterback of 2011. While Kaepernick is a bit raw, he has good arm strength and athleticism, and incumbent starter Alex Smith has done little during his six years in the league to prove that he is an NFL starter. Not so encouraging, however, was the team’s decision to sign veteran retread Josh McCown in mid-August. Kaepernick may emerge as bye-week filler by midseason, but he is not worth drafting in redraft leagues. Although he does make for a decent prospect in dynasty leagues.
RB Frank Gore
Gore is coming off an injury-marred 2010 season in which he saw action in just ten games because of a hip injury in Week 12 that put him on injured reserve. Prior to the injury, he was well on his way to another solid season, with 853 rushing yards, 452 receiving yards, and five touchdowns in eleven games. Looking at the sad state of San Francisco’s offense, that should be considered good production. Gore remains the focal point of the San Francisco offense—equally effective at running the ball and as a receiver. He remains a workhorse back as he enters his seventh year in the league, averaging 21.4 touches, 113.7 yards, and 0.6 touchdowns per game since taking over as the team’s starting running back in 2006. That’s consistency. While Gore hasn’t played a full 16-game slate since 2006, he generally only misses a game or two per season. That’s not a bad trade-off to have such a highly consistent, workhorse back in your fantasy lineup.
RB Anthony Dixon
The 49ers’ sixth-round pick in the 2010 draft, Dixon was pressed into action as a rookie when Frank Gore suffered a hip injury in Week 12. Splitting time with Brian Westbrook, Dixon largely disappointed, as his lack of speed and his inability to make tacklers miss were apparent. Over his final six games, Dixon had 219 rushing yards and one touchdown on 60 carries, averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. He also doesn’t bring much to the table in the passing game, averaging one reception per game over that stretch. Dixon will need to beat out rookie fourth-round pick Kendall Hunter to remain the team’s top backup; furthermore, and Gore rarely comes off the field. Even though Gore generally misses a game or two each season, there’s no need to handcuff him with Dixon unless Dixon beats out Hunter. Even then, it might not be worth it.
RB Kendall Hunter
Having watched Anthony Dixon struggle in trying to replace Frank Gore last season, the team used a fourth-round pick on Hunter. While Dixon is a big back who lacks speed, Hunter is the polar opposite, a smaller player defenders don’t want to face in the open field. At 5’7” and 199 pounds, there are some doubts as to whether Hunter could handle a lead role in the NFL, concerns backed up by his injury issues in college. However, he clearly has more upside than Dixon, and that makes him worth grabbing as Gore’s handcuff if he wins the backup job.
WR Braylon Edwards
After his 2007 breakout season in Cleveland in which he caught 80 passes for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns, Edwards struggled mightily over the next two seasons, catching just 90 passes for 1,557 yards and seven touchdowns. Despite his inconsistent hands, he had a bit of renaissance season in 2010, becoming a big-play threat for the Jets while making 53 receptions for 904 yards and seven touchdowns. With the free-agent market for his services drying up, Edwards signed a one-year deal with the 49ers in the hope of having a big season and cashing out as a free agent in 2012. The issue for Edwards in San Francisco is that starting quarterback Alex Smith has never proven capable of connecting with his wide receivers on deep patterns. His preferred option on those plays is tight end Vernon Davis, and that is not expected to change in 2011. Edwards’ upside in 2011 is similar to what he produced in 2010, making him a WR3. The more likely scenario, however, is that Edwards sees a reduction in his big plays and touchdowns. Grab him as a low-end WR3 if you have to, but get more comfortable with using him off your bench as a bye-week fill-in or an injury replacement.
WR Michael Crabtree
Crabtree enters his third year in the league coming off a disappointing 2010 season. He never seemed to get on the same page with quarterback Alex Smith, finishing the year with 55 receptions for 741 yards and six touchdowns and catching just 54.5 percent of his targets. And how is that going to get better with Crabtree expected to miss most, if not all, of the preseason with a foot injury? Also not helping Crabtree’s fantasy appeal is Smith’s reliance on tight end Vernon Davis, the team’s addition of Braylon Edwards, and the play of Ted Ginn in training camp (okay, we’ve heard that story before). Keep your expectations realistic. Crabtree is clearly a talented player, but he remains an enigma, and you have to wonder if the light will ever go on for him. He is almost certainly going to be drafted before he should be, but if he does get pushed to the late rounds of your draft, he is worth grabbing as a WR5.
WR Josh Morgan
Over his past two years in the 49ers’ starting lineup, Morgan has been a serviceable performer but nothing more. Despite Michael Crabtree struggling and the 49ers often playing from behind, Morgan had just 80 targets, catching 44 of those for 698 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With Braylon Edwards joining the team, there is a solid chance that Morgan will lose his starting job when (or if) Michael Crabtree returns to health. Even if Crabtree remains injured, it’s hard to project Morgan outperforming his 2010 production, which translated into just 5.1 fantasy points per game. While new head coach Jim Harbaugh may see something in Morgan that his predecessors didn’t, that seems unlikely. Morgan is a WR5 at best in 2011.
WR Ted Ginn Jr.
Reports out of San Francisco indicate that Ginn was lighting it up in training camp. Kind of how he lit it up at Ohio State and impressed NFL scouts at the 2007 rookie combine? Was he lighting it up against the team’s starting cornerbacks or the 90th man on the roster? Or maybe it was the water boy? Do I sound skeptical? Read this: 12 receptions for 163 yards and a touchdown in 2010. Enough said.
TE Vernon Davis
Outside of Frank Gore, there’s only one 49er worth having on your fantasy roster, and that is Davis. While he wasn’t nearly as dynamic last year as he was in 2009—when he caught 78 passes for 956 yards and 13 touchdowns—Davis still finished 2010 as the third-ranked fantasy tight end, chalking up 56 receptions for 914 yards and seven touchdowns. There is a good chance he improves on those numbers in 2011 with new head coach Jim Harbaugh bringing his version of the West Coast offense to San Francisco. Look for Harbaugh to feature Davis, using him on more short and intermediate patterns than he’s seen in previous years. Davis also remains the league’s premier tight end on deep passes. If only the 49ers could get some more consistent play from the quarterback position! Davis ranks in the top tier at tight end and could emerge as the top-ranked at his position if quarterback Alex Smith can turn in a career year in 2011.