2015 Fantasy Football Outlook: San Francisco 49ers
August 31, 2015 | Chet
2015 49ers Schedule
Remember to express caution when looking ahead at strength of schedule and incorporating it into your future outlook. Looking ahead at the San Francisco 49ers schedule, things are tough early as they face five playoff opponents from last season over their opening seven games. The back half doesn’t appear any better, especially for the passing game as the 49ers face five of the top 10 teams against fantasy quarterbacks from a season ago.
That strong slate of opponents will be tough for this offense to overcome if they carry over their troubles from a season ago. Despite running 42.7 percent of their offensive plays with the lead (eighth highest percentage in the league), the 49ers were a miserable offense in terms of efficiency. They’ve since moved on from offensive coordinator Greg Roman and promoted Geep Chryst from quarterbacks coach to coordinator. Chryst has only been a coordinator in title for one stop in his NFL coaching career, last running the Chargers offense for two seasons way back in 1999 and 2000. Those two teams went 8-8 and 1-15, not inspiring a ton of confidence that this offense will get turned around quickly, but there’s a relatively low bar for them to top considering how they produced a season ago as an offense.
A large reason why the 49er offense finished so poorly overall was they were dreadful in adjusting during games. San Francisco scored just eight touchdowns in the second half last season (last in the league) on 86 possessions. This was after scoring 22 touchdowns on 83 first half possessions, a top five unit. That shows there’s still talent to latch onto offensively, but take a look at how this offense performed to start and close games a season ago.
|Per Drive||1st Half||Rank||2nd Half||Rank|
Kaepernick: Value or Trap Play?
A big part of that offensive decline was also tied to the play of Colin Kaepernick, who regressed in nearly efficiency measure last season. His adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A) fell for the third consecutive season, down to 6.9 yards per attempt, while his touchdown rate dropped to four percent. His passing points per attempt also fell for the third straight season, down to .399 per attempt, which ranked 25th at the position. At the end of the season, Kaepernick finished with just five top-12 scoring weeks at his position with nine weeks at QB16 or lower.
That loss of efficiency when volume was forced to increase was always a worry with Kaepernick and many of the young, dual threat quarterbacks that have had recent success. Like Cam Newton and Robert Griffin, when their teams lose offensive leverage, become one dimensional and lose the ability to exploit the strengths of these quarterbacks, their play has deteriorated as their lack of pure passing acumen comes to light. C.D. Carter highlighted Kaepernick’s drastic splits in 49er wins and losses previously, but here are his splits per game scenario over the past three seasons.
|Tied or Leading||429||715||60.0%||33||10||184||1091||9|
|2nd Half Trailing||123||205||60.0%||6||8||37||256||1|
You can’t use your legs when you’re forced to throw the football as those are polarizing numbers in both the passing and rushing department. If the 49ers are hovering around their over/under Vegas win total of eight games, there’s cause for concern in Kaepernick’s weekly viability in your lineups.
Despite those reasons to express caution, there are also reasons to explore the positives. With the new offense in play, Kaepernick has finally been given command of the huddle, worked with Kurt Warner in changing his mechanics and the 49ers have given indication they want to deploy him as a runner more this season. Although he ran more last season than in 2013, he had just one rushing score after nine in his previous two seasons. With increased opportunity, that total could find its way back up to the four to five area, smoothing out any low points while unlocking his ceiling. That ceiling is still relevant as despite his subpar fantasy season a year ago, Kaepernick still had three weeks as a top-four scoring quarterback.
Kaepernick’s ceiling shows up in Carter’s Quarterback Equity Scores as a potential value with wiggle room at his QB18 price tag to still cover his median outlook. I love Kaepernick in Best Ball formats this year at his cost as you’re insulated from absorbing any of the low points while playing for the big weeks. For redraft purposes, he may find a platoon of mine, but as someone who inherently plays the position from the floor up, I prefer to attach myself to a passing floor first. The schedule is full of passing pitfalls and if this team is not good enough to maintain offensive leverage consistently, I won’t feel safe starting him most weeks. When making a re-draft play on Kaepernick’s ceiling, I still prefer to go the route of his pass catchers since all of their risk is baked into their current costs and I can make up the quarterback points elsewhere.
Mining the Pass Catchers
No team targeted their wide receivers as often as the 49ers did last season, with receivers accounting for 71.2 percent of the team targets. San Francisco moved on from Michael Crabtree this summer, allowing him to leave via free agency and went out and signed 26-year old Torrey Smith in his place. San Francisco desperately needed a guy like Smith as they had too many intermediate options, but every positive you can lay out for Smith in the move as a positive for fantasy, he already had in Baltimore. He already had a strong armed quarterback, a beyond the wall receiver opposite of him, a good run game and would’ve gotten Marc Trestman as a coordinator. This may not elevate Smith’s stock much, but he’s been a consistent overall performer so far every year of his career.
Smith has only eclipsed 20 percent of his team targets only once in his career and has never had a catch rate higher than 53.3 percent, so the volume loss also dings him with the move to the 49ers. Baltimore threw 540 or more passes every year he was there while San Francisco hasn’t hit that mark since 2004. Smith had kind of bizarre season in 2014, finishing within normal per game output as previous seasons, but relied on short touchdowns to anchor his fantasy stock. 34.4 percent of Smith’s fantasy output came on touchdown receptions and he lacked the splash play production we normally seen from him. He only had two receptions of 40 or more yards last season after having 17 of those vertical splash plays over his first three seasons.
Smith has scored seven or more times now in three of his four professional seasons and that scoring ability has masked his overall performance more than most realize. Often considered a splash play, high variance option, Smith actually has had a relatively low apex. He hasn’t reached 100 yards receiving in 26 consecutive games played and has reached the century mark in receiving yards just six times in 64 career games.
While I believe the move dings him a touch in fantasy, his cost has followed suit and past where I believe it should fall. Smith is currently WR50, which is low as illustrated by his higher median and ceiling marks in C.D. Carter’s Equity Scores and even below soon to be 35-year old teammate Anquan Boldin. I definitely believe Smith bests that cost when the dust settles, but I can’t say he’s actually a receiver I will pursue for my own teams since I can’t see him having a strong weekly presence outside of touchdown ability, but it’s hard to find a lot of fault in taking a swing or two on Smith when he carries such a low fee.
The other thing that hurts Smith’s long awaited breakout is not only is the volume reduced by signing in San Francisco, he also has more targets to contend with for that share. He’s once again reunited with Boldin, who as mentioned, will be turning 35-years old in October and has found the fountain of youth over the past two seasons with the 49ers after appearing to be on the downslope of his career.
JJ Zachariason points out that Boldin has consistently outperformed his fantasy cost and it shows up once again in his ceiling outlook in Carter’s Equity Scores. The worries with Boldin outside of inevitable decline are that he’s dominated the target share in San Francisco the past two seasons and seemingly the 49ers have better surrounding personnel around him with the addition of Reggie Bush to go alongside Smith and the possible rejuvenation of Vernon Davis. He also had his worst seasons for fantasy playing alongside a younger Smith. It’s reasonable to expect his share suffer a touch, but even in that event, Boldin still has the best rapport with Kaepernick and has performed on a per target basis with Kaepernick on a similar level per throw with how he performed with Kurt Warner.
Boldin does also carry a low touchdown ceiling, scoring fewer than seven times in four of the past six seasons, but at WR43, he’s a fine floor play for those who have a volatile set of receivers at that stage of the draft. While I was all over Boldin’s value early in the summer while builidng best ball rosters, he just hasn’t been finding any of my seasonal rosters as I already typically have three to five receivers when his name is about to go off of the board. At that point, I’m mostly looking at running back depth or attempting to swing from my heels a bit on another receiver with an unknown ceiling.
Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and possibly DeAndrew White are all vying for the third receiver spot, but there’s not enough subsequent volume after Smith and Boldin to make any of them fantasy relevant without dominoes falling. Instead, the last intriguing piece here is tight end Vernon Davis.
Davis had his worst season as a pro, catching just 26 passes for 245 yards and two scores as he was targeted on just 11.3 percent of his routes, the lowest of his career. Even coming off of that disastrous output, there’s reason to still kick the tires on his TE17 cost.
The first is positive touchdown regression. Davis has been an elite touchdown producer throughout his career and is actually the only tight end in NFL history with multiple 13 touchdown seasons on his resume. That’s an arbitrary number, but still showcases his scoring ceiling. Davis had just one lone red zone target all of 2014 after seeing an average of 10.3 per season over his career. That matters because not only did Davis convert that target for a score, he’s also the third best active producer in the red zone.
Outside of involvement near the paint, Davis didn’t see the way he was used drastically altered. Per Pro Football Focus, Davis sported a 12.4 yard average depth of target (aDOT), which ranked the highest of all tight ends. He led the NFL in 2013 at 14.3 yards and was third in 2012 at 12.4 yards. For a player that you can cut with no remorse if he rolls over his unproductive tendencies, Davis is exactly what a tight end streamer or platoon builder looks for in the position. He has a tangible touchdown ceiling and big play ability attached to a dirt cheap sticker price.
Jeckyll and Hyde
Rounding out this offense is the one area that fantasy players only invested in for almost a decade when this offense was putrid. After allowing their franchise leader in rushing, Frank Gore, to leave this summer, the 49ers are turning the reins over to sophomore back Carlos Hyde to be the team’s lead back.
In a limited sample, Hyde displayed some ability as 70.3 percent of his rushing yards came after contact, the most of any rookie back in the league last season. For comparison sake, 53 percent of Gore’s yards came after contact. Hyde forced a missed tackled once every 3.8 touches to Gore’s one every 7.6 and their success rates per run were lateral.
|Player||Tm||Att||Yds||2 yd or Less||%||5+ Yd||%||10+ Yd||%|
There are still some elements in play to proceed with caution on Hyde. The first is obviously that the 49ers are expected to regress in the form of game script. As noted earlier, they ran the eighth highest percentage of plays with the lead in 2014, something in question headed forward into this season. San Francisco also brought in veteran Reggie Bush, whose 466 career receptions are the most of all active backs. That makes Hyde a game script dependent option and if they aren’t scoring in the first place, compromises his weekly ceiling.
The second is the 49ers offensive line may be questionable to mediocre. Even though they had a revolving door a season ago, replacing Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis with Brandon Thomas and Daniel Kilgore as Alex Boone moves to right tackle can be a viable option when Kilgore is healthy again, but it’s still an immediate downgrade in terms of run blocking, especially as long as Erik Pears is in the lineup.
Early in the summer, Hyde had a lot of that risk unaccounted for, but has recently started to slide into an area in which his pricing is matching those hazards. At RB21, he now comes with a later fourth round, early fifth round cost, allowing you to plug him into a more solidified roster. I still prefer Mark Ingram and Alfred Morris to Hyde, but would rather have Hyde over Latavius Murray and Andre Ellington. I want to like Bush for fantasy purposes, but he’s above handcuffing cost at RB43 and even though he’s been a better runner than credited for over his career, he’s going to have limited access to heavy volume and has modest touchdown potential at best. Without an injury to Hyde, I can’t see him being more than a Best Ball option.