QB Alex Smith
While Smith had a career-year in 2011 with highs in passing completions (273), attempts (445), completion percentage (61.3%), passing yards (3,144), rushing yards (179) and rushing touchdowns (two), it is doubtful his on field success did much for his fantasy owners as he threw for just 17 touchdowns. The success of the former 1st overall selection in the 2005 draft after six lackluster seasons made for a fine story as the 49ers took the Giants to overtime before losing in the NFC Championship Game and Smith enjoyed two solid performances in his first playoff action. Against the Saints, Smith led the 49ers to a miraculous comeback, throwing for 299 yards and three touchdowns while also scoring a touchdown on the ground. As is the case with many solid individual playoff performances, fantasy owners are going to place too much emphasis on one game in projecting Smith’s fantasy value in 2012. Is that realistic? Not a chance. With the addition of a pair of veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham as well as A.J. Jenkins and LaMichael James in the draft, Smith has more weapons to work with further amplifying his perceived fantasy value. However, the 49ers success in 2011 was based on outstanding defensive play, solid special teams and a conservative offense approach and there seems to be little reason why head coach Jim Harbaugh would change that formula, especially given the weak competition the team will face in the NFC West. That limits Smith’s upside and makes him a somewhat intriguing low end QB2 for 2012.
RB Frank Gore
On the surface, Gore put together a solid season in 2011, finishing the year with the second most rushing yards of his career (1,211) and finding the end zone eight times. However, it was a roller coaster ride as Gore struggled in his first three games with 148 rushing yards and one touchdown before putting together a great five game stretch when he topped 100 rushing yards in every game and totaled 634 yards and four touchdowns. After that, his usage and production declined over the 49ers final eight games as he averaged just 15.8 touches and accumulated 429 rushing yards and three touchdowns. First year head coach Jim Harbaugh clearly seemed to be curtailing Gore’s workload in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs and with the addition of Brandon Jacobs in free agency and LaMichael James in the draft, that approach is likely to continue in 2012. That will mean fewer carries for Gore and since he was rarely used as a pass catcher last season (just 17 receptions after averaging 51 receptions over the previous five seasons), his days as a RB1 for fantasy purposes appear to be over. Look for Gore to struggle to reach 1,000 rushing yards in 2012 and finish the year as a low end RB2, provided he wins the short yardage role over Brandon Jacobs. If he loses that role, Gore will likely finish the year as a fantasy backup.
RB Kendall Hunter
In the “life isn’t fair” category, we present Kendall Hunter. Not much was expected of the 5’7, 199 pound rookie 4th round pick last season but he had a productive season, gaining 473 rushing yards and 195 receiving yards on 16 receptions while scoring twice. At season’s end, it appeared that Hunter had carved out a role as a 8-10 touches per game backup to Frank Gore. Then the offseason hit. Bam! The 49ers signed Brandon Jacobs. Bam! The 49ers shocked the football world by using a 2nd round pick on LaMichael James, essentially a Hunter clone. Whereas Hunter once appeared on the verge of being a must have handcuff to Gore and a potentially solid flex option, his fantasy value is now almost worthless, even in dynasty leagues.
RB Brandon Jacobs
Be careful what you wish for folks. Unhappy with losing his starting role to Ahmad Bradshaw with the Giants, Jacobs signed a modest one-year contract in free agency to join the 49ers but will end up fighting for playing time in 2012 and is unlikely to match his workload from last season. At best, Jacobs will win the backup job behind Frank Gore and also become the team’s top option in short yardage. At worst, disappointing third year player Anthony Dixon will blossom and push Jacobs off the roster although that seems unlikely given Dixon’s performance during the first two years in the league. Even if Jacobs ends up starting in the event Gore is lost to injury, he would simply become part of a committee approach and likely get 10-12 touches per game. Barring a solid preseason that sees Jacobs handily outperform Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, Jacobs isn’t worth owning in 2012.
RB LaMichael James
Despite having a loaded backfield depth chart that includes Frank Gore, solid second year player Kendall Hunter, former Giant Brandon Jacob and Anthony Dixon, the 49ers surprisingly used a 2nd round pick on Oregon running back LaMichael James. James excelled in Oregon’s spread offense but his lack of size may relegate him to a change of pace, receiving role in the NFL. Of course it is possible the 49ers view him as Gore’s heir apparent since they drafted him highly despite Hunter, a 4th round pick in 2011, showing plenty of promise as a rookie. For fantasy purposes, it is best to take a wait and see approach with James since he could easily open the season fourth on the team’s depth chart. Consider him worthy of a late round selection as Gore’s handcuff provided he wins that job and a mid-tier prospect in dynasty leagues.
RB Anthony Dixon
After a pair of middling seasons, the 49ers seem to have moved on from Dixon, having signed big back Brandon Jacobs in free agency and used a 2nd round pick on LaMichael James. Dixon will enter training camp sitting fifth on the team’s depth chart and is unlikely to be on the San Francisco roster on opening day.
WR Michael Crabtree
After being a full-fledged enigma for the first three years of his career, Crabtree finally put together a solid season in 2011. Despite missing training camp with a broken foot and struggling early in the year as he recovered, he finished the season with 72 receptions for 874 yards and four touchdowns in 15 games. More impressive was his production over the 49ers final eleven games as he caught 61 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns. While his performance thus far in his career suggests that he will never reach the expectations that were placed upon him coming out of Texas Tech, his solid play last year coupled with the fact that he has never had a full training camp suggest that is capable of building upon his production from last season. But he will have to do so in a role mainly as a short and intermediate option in the 49ers conservative passing offense which limits his fantasy upside. While the team added veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham during the offseason and has a solid receiving option in Vernon Davis at tight end, Crabtree figures to see plenty of targets as the team’s top wide receiver and has an opportunity to become the first 49er at his position to top 1,000 yards since Terrell Owens in 2003. Given the abundance of receiving options in San Francisco, Crabtree should be drafted as a low end WR3 with upside in 2012 and move him up your rankings if you play in a PPR league.
WR Mario Manningham
Stuck as a third receiver in New York, Manningham entered free agency hoping to land a big contract on the heels of an impressive performance in the Giants Super Bowl run from last season as well as his solid production as a backup in 2009 and 2010. When the big offers didn’t come rolling in, he signed a modest contract with the 49ers expecting to start opposite Michael Crabtree but now appears likely to enter the season as a backup, sharing the deep threat role he fulfilled with the Giants with Randy Moss in San Francisco. It’s one thing to be the third receiver in a pass-happy Giants offense that lacks a solid receiving option at tight end but quit another to produce in that same role in a conservative 49ers offense that has Vernon Davis. Manningham has never been a great on short and intermediate routes so he figures to see a decline in his production in 2012 (keeping in mind that he struggled with injuries last season). He might not be worth owning in standard 12-team, 16-player leagues in 2012.
WR Randy Moss
Lacking a proven deep threat at the wide receiver position, the 49ers signed the 35-year old Moss to a low risk one-year deal. Or should we say low risk in the financial sense since Moss has been a known cancer at times in his illustrious career. And playing in an offense with a quarterback not known for his deep passing ability and is content to run the ball extensively increases the likelihood of Randy spouting off. However, Moss’ rep as a player willing to tank it on a regular basis is unfounded, given his ten 1,000-yard seasons during the first 12 years of his career. In theory, he should be motivated given that his contract is for just one year. The bigger issues with Moss are whether he can consistently stretch a defense given his age, the fact he missed all of last season and his dreadful 2010 campaign, easily the worst of his career. That season included stops in New England, Minnesota and Tennessee with Moss establishing career lows in receptions (28) and yard (393) while scoring five touchdowns, the second lowest total of his career. In addition, tight end Vernon Davis will likely remain the team’s top deep threat and Michael Crabtree is coming off a career season in 2011. Given Moss’ age and expected role in San Francisco, expecting him to have a career renaissance in 2012 is unrealistic. In fact, there’s a good chance that he doesn’t have anything left in the tank. He’s a low-end WR4 or high-end WR5 at best.
WR A.J. Jenkins
With Michael Crabtree putting together his best year as a pro and the 49ers signing veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham in free agency, it was a surprise when the team used its late 1st round pick to add another player to the wide receiver depth chart. He displayed excellent speed and playmaking ability at Illinois but is considered a raw prospect that is unlikely to contribute much as a rookie. Spring practices have evidenced this as reports out of San Francisco indicate that Jenkins was badly out of shape and unable to use his modest size (6’0’, 192 pounds) to get free off the line. With little prospect of playing time, Jenkins isn’t worth owning in redraft leagues but is a mid-tier prospect in dynasty leagues.
WR Ted Ginn Jr.
While it was likely that many wrote off Ginn as a fantasy option at wide receiver a few years ago, there can be little doubt that it is now time to put the final nail in that coffin. Ginn will need to beat out second-year player Kyle Williamsto win a roster spot and even if that happens, he will sit behind at least three players on the depth chart in Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.
TE Vernon Davis
Davis had a sleepy 2011 campaign before turning into an absolute beast in the playoffs and nearly helping the 49ers reach the Super Bowl. After a modest regular season with 67 receptions for 792 yards and six touchdowns that saw him finish as the 8th ranked fantasy tight end, Davis turned in a pair of dominant performances against the Saints and Giants in the playoffs, catching 10 passes for 292 yards and four touchdowns. Which Davis will fantasy owners get in 2012? While Davis is easily the most talented 49ers receiving option and capable of topping 1,000 yards and hitting double digit touchdowns, the team’s conservative offensive approach under head coach Jim Harbaugh make that unlikely to happen. Of course, Davis could turn in a solid year given that this is his second year in Harbaugh’s offensive system. It is also possible that Davis will be overvalued on draft day based on his wonderful playoff performance. He rates as a mid-tier fantasy tight end in 2012, one with a huge upside and little risk.