In 2004, the San Francisco 49ers went 2-14 coming off of a draft in which they took six guys I have never heard of, plus a punter. They had one Pro Bowler and few bright spots. Their offense finished 26th in the NFL; their defense 24th. It was clear things had to change.
That offseason, the team fired its head coach, drafted a new quarterback first overall, and ... went on to finish last in the NFL in both offense and defense in 2005. In a 2012 piece, Football Outsiders noted that the 2005 49ers were the worst team it has ever tracked.
Things have gotten better, of course. But -- apart from a 2012 spike -- the improvements have largely been on the defensive side. The San Francisco defense, which finished 24th and 32nd in 2004 and 2005, has been in the top five in the league each of the last three years, while the offense has finished 23rd or worse in nine of the last 10 years.
See, look, I prove to you using my very special Paint skills.
Anyway, the 49ers have gone from one of the NFL's worst teams to one that has gone to the conference championship or further in each of the last three years, but has done so on the backs of a stalwart defense and an offense that has by-and-large done just enough.
Some of that (particularly the 2013-2014 season) is understandable. The 49ers' offense was missing one of its big pieces for much of the year, as Michael Crabtree didn't play until Week 13. Still, though, the 49ers had a five-time Pro Bowler at running back (Frank Gore), a three-timer at receiver who was healthy (Anquan Boldin), a two-timer at tight end (Vernon Davis), and a quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who entered the year being hailed as possibly the next big thing at the position; 24th in offensive yardage didn't really make sense, Crabtree injured or healthy.
So this offseason the 49ers doubled down on the offense. Crabtree's healthy, and Kaepernick, Gore, Boldin, and Davis are all still around. The team brought in wide receiver Stevie Johnson from Buffalo. They drafted running back Carlos Hyde out of Ohio State and South Carolina receiver Bruce Ellington. Quinton Patton and Marcus Lattimore -- who were both drafted in 2013 but went little- or unused last year -- could see their usages increase this season. Jonathan Baldwin, Kendall Hunter, and LaMichael James are all still with the team. Heck, they even signed the once-upon-a-time star Brandon Lloyd and traded for draft-bust quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
There were a lot of names in the paragraph. That was intentional. From a fantasy perspective, the 49ers have four or five players who have to be owned. But they have something in the range of a dozen guys who could be owned, depending on league makeup and injuries and ... you know, things.
After a decade of general mediocrity on the offensive side, the 49ers have the pieces in place to start climbing the ranks, start joining the team's defense at the upper echelon of the NFL.
So, what players will fantasy owners have to have, and which will they want to have? Who will produce in 2014, and who will produce later?
Kaepernick finished 2013 as the No. 9 quarterback in fantasy, with 253 fantasy points on the season. It was a season of swings, though. After a dominant 30-point performance in Week 1, he only put up 31 fantasy points over the next four weeks, and reaching double digits but once in that span. Then, at the end of the season, he blew up again. Kaepernick closed the season with 20-plus points in each of his last three games and four of his last six; his 116 points over those last six points work out to a 17.4-point average that would have tied him with Andrew luck for fourth at the position over a full season.
It doesn't work that way, of course, and Kaepernick is likely to continue to be a quarterback just a step below the highest tier. On the other hand, his rushing ability -- 939 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in basically a season and a half as a starter -- likely keeps him from many total meltdowns or goose-eggs.
There are five quarterbacks who will be the first five drafted in almost every league: Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, and Cam Newton. I doubt many people will argue with that list. Things get much more jumbled after that. Kaepernick. Andrew Luck. Robert Griffin III. Tom Brady. Nick Foles. Russell Wilson. Heck, Matt Ryan and Tony Romo. You could scramble those in just about any order, and it would be hard to put forth a really convincing argument that you were wrong.
For me, though? Kaepernick has what should be a fairly high floor, and enough weapons -- and history with those weapons -- that his ceiling ought to be insane. In that group, that second full tier, I would probably take him second, after Luck. For me, that slots him at seventh overall among quarterbacks. Again, he's lumped in with a group that could go in just about any order, but that one seems like the way I'd do it.
Frank Gore is 31, with 2,187 carries in his career. That's tied for 29th on the all-time list, and has him in second place among active running backs behind only Steven Jackson. There's every reason to think Gore's run, so to speak, has to be nearing its end.
Of course, some variation of that last paragraph could have been -- has been -- written about Gore for the last four seasons. People have been just waiting for him to go over the cliff and he keeps right on refusing. In 2013, Gore was the No. 13 fantasy running back, scoring nine touchdowns and topping a thousand rushing yards for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.
Until Gore does reach that tipping point at which his legs go kaput, fantasy owners can easily keep seeing him as a mid- to high-end RB2 at worst. Drafting Gore means taking the risk that this year is the year he washes up, which is why he's sliding to the late teens or early 20s among running backs in some early draft and rankings. It's the old aphorism of "better a year early than a year late" coming into play. And that's fair, because Gore's floor is a low one and his ceiling is basically "solid but unspectacular."
Still, Gore has been proving fantasy owners wrong for long enough now that letting him slide outside of the top 20 at the position is playing with fire; one wants to grab Gore before 20 running backs have gone.
That out of the way, Gore might be the single most handcuff-able running back in the league, because one way or another we do know his tires are running low on tread. Last season, Kendall Hunter was the team's No. 2 running back, rushing for 358 yards and three touchdowns on 78 carries. On the other hand, while Hunter (and the underwhelming-so-far LaMichael James) are still on the roster, their roles might have been supplanted.
The team used its second-round pick (57th overall) in the May draft on running back Carlos Hyde out of Ohio State. He was according to some (including Mel Kiper Jr.) the best running back in the draft, and if the Titans had taken him instead of Bishop Sankey only three picks earlier, we'd be talking about Hyde as a perfectly viable RB2. Gore's presence means Hyde won't be a starter right away, but he's got a heck of a lot of upside.
But that's not the end of the list, as the 49ers also have 2013 fourth-round pick Marcus Lattimore in the fold. Lattimore was seen as a big-time prospect in college before Hell descended upon his lower body, rendering his knees cottage cheese and sadness. As a result he fell to the fourth round and didn't see the field for San Francisco a season ago as he recuperated from surgery.
Lattimore has been building his strength back in preparations for the season. He has some work to do to prove he's got his wheels back, but if they are there then he's got as much potential as anyone in the San Francisco backfield.
As I said, Gore needs to go in the top 20 among running backs, at worst. Hyde has the best combination of talent and opportunity to follow Gore up. He's not going to be worth starting in fantasy any time soon (nor will any of his non-Gore RB teammates), but as a handcuff, he ought to go in the mid-50s among running backs. In deeper leagues, Hunter and Lattimore will be worth a shot as well, though neither is likely to be any great shakes in 2014. Take them in the mid-to-late 60s among RBs and hope for the best.
The 49ers receiving attack a season ago was two guys, and for the most part it was two guys only. Anquan Boldin was the only San Francisco wide receiver worth owning for 90 percent of the season and his 1,179 receiving yards were 895 more than the team's second-leading wide receiver, Michael Crabtree, who misses three-quarters of the season. After Crabtree, the team's No. 3 wide receiver was Kyle Williams, who had only 113 receiving yards on the season.
Basically, it was Boldin-or-bust for San Francisco wide receivers last year (tight end Vernon Davis was the team's only other viable pass-catcher). Which is why the wide-receiver overhaul in San Francisco is so notable. Boldin is a good receiver; Boldin, Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, Jonathan Baldwin, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton, and Brandon Lloyd is a receiving corps.
Crabtree's end-of-season run (he had 10 fantasy points in two of the 49ers' last three games, then had 125 yards in the team's first-round playoff game against Green Bay) was reason enough for confidence that he can be the receiver who worked so well with Kaepernick in 2011, when they paired off to the tune of 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns plus three more scores in the playoffs.
Boldin, meanwhile, has spent a career acting independent of the situation around him. He's gone for high-three-digit or low-four-digit receiving yardage every year of his career, making the Pro Bowl in 2003, 2006, and 2008. He finished 15th at the position in fantasy scoring in 2013, though, which is likely an untenable number for him this season, if only because of all the extra weapons the team has now.
Those weapons? Well, the biggest new name is Steve Johnson (or Stevie, if you guys are close), acquired in exchange for a condition fourth-round pick of the 2015 draft. Johnson had his worst year as a regular player last year, going for only 597 yards and three touchdowns after three straight seasons of 1,000-plus yards and between six and 10 scores. To be fair, that was caused in part by injuries that limited him to 12 games and part by having EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, and Jeff Tuel as his quarterbacks. Being healthy and the No. 3 wide receiver in an offense with Colin Kaepernick throwing the ball is about as far from 2013 in Buffalo as it can possibly get. Johnson ought to be better for real football in 2014, and that should carry fantasy value along with it.
After that, the situations become much more question-marky. Bruce Ellington, the team's fourth-round pick out of South Carolina, could (and should?) have gone much higher in the draft but the preponderance of weapons in San Francisco means he's a luxury piece for 2014. The same, to various degrees, can be said of Jonathan Baldwin and Quinton Patton; we'll need a handful of injuries or other bad tidings for those guys to matter in fantasy in 2014.
Which brings us to Brandon Lloyd. The 49ers like to do this and they brought in Randy Moss two years ago in a similar situation. Moss had a few touchdowns and wasn't a drain on the offense by any means, but he was pretty far from all-caps RANDY MOSS. And that is probably the best-case scenario for Lloyd, who wasn't even in the NFL in 2013. He's buried so far down the depth chart, and so far removed from real relevance, that he's just an interesting name to be aware of, and not much more.
When fantasy drafting, Crabtree is the first 49er that needs to go. He's a low-end WR2 or a high-end WR3, somewhere in the range of guys like Torrey Smith, Julian Edelman, and Michael Floyd. Considering the number of weapons the team has, though, Boldin and Johnson are unlikely to be able to put up enough numbers to be sure-fire fantasy numbers. Boldin is a decent flex play, or a bye-week fantasy starter, but if he's your week-to-week fantasy starter, you probably want to upgrade. Call him the 40th wide receiver or so. Johnson is another 15-20 receivers behind him; a depth play, a starter if Boldin or Crabtree gets hurt, but not much more.
None of the other San Francisco receivers is worth a draft pick in most fantasy leagues; they're guys to pay attention to and be aware of, but burning a roster spot on a team's fifth or sixth wide receiver is a fool's errand.
Here's where it gets easy. Vernon Davis had his second career 13-touchdown season in 2013, finishing second among tight ends in fantasy scoring. Even if you assume that number of touchdowns is tough to count on -- which it is -- a slide to six or seven or eight touchdowns will keep him right in the upper tier of tight ends, just below Jimmy Graham.
There's every possibility that Frank Gore stumbles and another 49er running back rises. Any of the San Francisco wide receivers could rise or fall based on the vagaries of the opposing defense. But Davis is the constant in the San Francisco offense.
Just like Kaepernick and his tier of quarterbacks could reasonably be drafted in just about any order, Davis, Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, and Rob Gronkowski could realistically go in just about any order after Graham goes off the board. I slot Davis as my No. 3 tight end with confidence, but got him fifth at the position in the SB Nation Fantasy Analysts' Mock that we completed last week.
Miss out on any of the team pieces so far? Catch up here:
|AFC EAST||NFC EAST|
|Buffalo Bills||Dallas Cowboys|
|Miami Dolphins||New York Giants|
|New England Patriots||Philadelphia Eagles|
|New York Jets||Washington Redskins|
|AFC NORTH||NFC NORTH|
|Baltimore Ravens||Chicago Bears|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Detroit Lions|
|Cleveland Browns||Green Bay Packers|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Minnesota Vikings|
|AFC SOUTH||NFC SOUTH|
|Houston Texans||Atlanta Falcons|
|Indianapolis Colts||Carolina Panthers|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||New Orleans Saints|
|Tennessee Titans||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|AFC WEST||NFC WEST|
|Denver Broncos||Arizona Cardinals|
|Kansas City Chiefs||San Francisco 49ers (Hi there)|
|Oakland Raiders||Seattle Seahawks|
|San Diego Chargers||St. Louis Rams|