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2023 Player Outlooks: San Francisco 49ers

By HC Green | 7/11/23 |

QB Brock Purdy
(2022 QB Rank: No.33, 14.2 FPts/G)

A year ago, Trey Lance was a popular breakout candidate as a possible top-10 fantasy QB. Now, he appears to be on the outside looking in for the starting job in San Francisco after suffering a broken ankle two games into 2021, causing him to miss the rest of the season. In his absence, the job eventually landed in the lap of Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, who stepped in and led the 49ers to seven straight wins before suffering an elbow injury in the NFC Championship Game.

That injury turned out to be a torn UCL, which required surgery in March. While there was initially some concern about Purdy’s availability for the upcoming campaign, subsequent updates have painted a much rosier picture that suggest the Iowa State product is ahead of schedule. At this stage, both head coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch (and Purdy himself) are optimistic the quarterback will be ready to roll in Week 1. If not, the team could go back to Lance, who has reportedly looked improved during offseason workouts, or veteran Sam Darnold.

While there’s no clear hierarchy among the three quarterbacks at this point, if all three are healthy it feels like Purdy has earned the opportunity to lead the team after efficiently guiding the offense to a 7-1 record in eight starts -- the lone loss came against the Eagles in the game he was injured. The issue with that scenario for fantasy owners is Purdy wasn’t markedly different than Jimmy Garoppolo statistically, passing for more than 250 yards in a game just once and offering nothing as a runner. Even as the 49ers starter, Purdy might not be a top-25 fantasy QB.

RB Christian McCaffrey
(2022 RB Rank: No.2, 20.6 FPts/G)

A budding superstar through his first three NFL seasons, McCaffrey battled injuries that limited him to just 10 games in 2020 and 2021 combined. His inability to stay healthy led to Carolina flipping the former All Pro for a handful of picks last October. For at least one season, the trade was a slam dunk success for the 49ers as Run CMC’s arrival immediately transformed the 49ers offense -- in six games before acquiring McCaffrey, the 49ers averaged 20.3 points per game; in 11 games after, that number jumped to 29.8.

Shanahan also seemed to find the right balance to keep McCaffrey on the field, only exceeding 20 carries in a game once. The monitored workload didn’t hamper his statistical output, though, as in 14 games with San Francisco (including the playoffs), the Stanford product averaged 108 total yards per outing and scored 13 touchdowns. He’s as talented a back as there is the NFL, and his versatility may be unmatched as well with great hands out of the backfield and the toughness to be effective in goal-to-go situations that belie his size.

There’s no doubt McCaffrey belongs in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick alongside the likes of Justin Jefferson, Austin Ekeler, and Jonathan Taylor, but the seventh-year pro didn’t have his durability red flags wiped clean by one healthy campaign. Plus, there’s this historical nugget: the 49ers have had a different leading rusher in each of Shanahan’s six seasons as head coach. Ultimately, McCaffrey is a clear RB1 that carries significant risk.

RB Elijah Mitchell
(2022 RB Rank: No.82, 8.7 FPts/G)

One reason the 49ers made the move for McCaffrey was that Mitchell got hurt... again. Over two years in the NFL, Mitchell has appeared in 16 of 33 games due to a variety of injuries, which included two stints on Injured Reserve last year -- he also missed the NFC Championship Game with a groin issue. When healthy, he’s been effective, averaging 4.9 yards on 252 career carries, though his lack of involvement in the passing game portends an early-down role even if McCaffrey were to miss time.

As a standalone talent, Mitchell is a borderline top-50 fantasy back, as the 49ers would like to give him enough touches each week to keep McCaffrey fresh over a 17-game season. He’d be a savvy handcuff for CMC owners as well, though Mitchell has serious medical issues that could make him a wasted pick if he can’t stay off the IR. It’s a definite “buyer beware” situation.

Deebo Samuel

WR Deebo Samuel
(2022 WR Rank: No.36, 13.3 FPts/G)

Although it was overshadowed by Cooper Kupp’s monster season, Samuel put up huge numbers of his own in 2021: 77 receptions, 1,770 combined yards, and 14 touchdowns. With Lance set to take over as QB1, and viewed by many as an upgrade over Jimmy G in terms of dynamic quarterback play, the thought was Samuel would be a top-10 fantasy wideout. Instead, the former Gamecock experienced regression across the board before a high ankle sprain effectively ended his season on Dec. 11.

Heading into 2023, expectations are significantly reduced. With a true lead back like McCaffrey in place, Samuel’s usage as a runner will continue to dip, and he’s yet to prove he can be effective as a receiver in the red zone with just 12 touchdowns among his 223 career grabs. It might also be time to worry about his extremely physical style of play and the toll it’s already taken on his body; he sat out four games last year and has now missed 15 total in four seasons.

There’s a chance that all these things might combine to knock the talented wideout even further down draft boards than he should be, and if that’s the case, Samuel certainly offers enough upside to warrant selecting him. Whether he deserves to be considered a top-20 fantasy receiver is up for debate, though, and that wasn’t the case a year ago.

WR Brandon Aiyuk
(2022 WR Rank: No.15, 13.5 FPts/G)

Opinions of Aiyuk have been all over the map since the 49ers made him a first-round pick in 2020, especially when his much-anticipated breakout in 2021 got off to an extremely rocky start. It’s time to move past that. The Arizona State product led the team in targets (114), receptions (78), and yards (1,015) last year while appearing in all 17 games for the second straight year, which was a refreshing development on a team that battled key injuries all season long. His eight touchdowns were also a career high, though he trailed George Kittle (11) in that department.

The 49ers exercised Aiyuk’s fifth-year option during the offseason, and the arrow looks to be pointed up entering Year 4. Still, it’s worth noting that Aiyuk didn’t have huge numbers with Purdy under center, topping 80 yards just twice in the then-rookie’s eight starts despite Samuel missing several games with an ankle injury. Although he’s arguably a safer choice than his teammate, Aiyuk is better suited to a WR3 role with the hope that he can ascend into WR2 territory.

TE George Kittle
(2022 TE Rank: No.3, 13.5 FPts/G)

After posting back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard campaigns in 2018 and 2019, respectively, Kittle had seen his production (and durability) regress, averaging 772 yards in two subsequent seasons. So, when he missed the first two games of 2022 with a groin injury, fantasy owners were understandably nervous. A slow start that saw him top 50 yards in a game just twice in his first seven while scoring only two TDs didn’t help matters, either. The insertion of Purdy was a boon for Kittle, however, as the veteran scored a whopping seven touchdowns over the final four games of last season.

Despite the strong finish, Kittle still finished with modest numbers in receptions (60) and yards (765), giving him three consecutive seasons of less than 1,000 yards. The TDs (11) were almost double his previous career high, so it’s certainly debatable whether he can match that number in 2023. Tight end is a weak fantasy position, though, and once you get past Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews, the next batch that includes names like TJ Hockenson, Kyle Pitts, Dallas Goedert, and Kittle pretty much comes down to personal preference as to how you rank that grouping of TE1s.

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