Even though the 49ers’ surprising 2011 season fell just short of a Super Bowl, the team’s success was generated in great part due to the effectiveness of the league’s fourth ranked defense (308.1 YPG), which was in turn led by the NFL’s stingiest run stoppers (77.3 YPG). However, San Francisco ranked a paltry 26th in total offense, despite possessing the league’s eighth best rushing offense (127.8 YPG), due to the limitations in their “aerial attack”. The Niners did not even generate 200 YPG (183), while ranking a lowly 29th in passing.
So it was hardly astonishing when GM Trent Baalke executed several offseason personnel moves which held the distinct goal of improving that aspect of their roster. First, Randy Moss and Mario Manningham were added in free agency, then speedster A.J. Jenkins became the team’s first round draft selection. But even though San Francisco should generate better numbers in its passing game, that does not necessarily translate into exceptional production for any of their WRs.
Baalke also chose to address the 49ers’ rushing attack, even though Frank Gore ran for more yards than in any season since 2006. He must now return for his eighth season to claim his place within a jam packed stable of backs, along with fellow incumbents Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon, after Manningham’s former teammate Brandon Jacobs was acquired in free agency, and LaMichael James was secured with the team’s second round pick.
How will these roster additions impact the fantasy value of the incumbents and newcomers? Here is a breakdown of each RB and WR, that you might be considering on draft day, along with an updated profile of incumbent QB Alex Smith.
Gore rushed for 1,211 yards last season, while scoring eight times. However, 634 of those yards were collected in a five game stretch that centered primarily in October. Otherwise, he averaged just 53.6 YPG in his final eight regular season contests. He has also logged 1,526 carries over the past six seasons, and is a strong candidate for a diminished workload this year. He will remain the backfield’s alpha dog, but even though he might remain physically capable of handling the extensive workload that fantasy owner have been accustomed to, it is unlikely that he will be allowed to do so. Not only will it be difficult for him to match his six year average of 254 rushing attempts, and you can plan on him falling short of last season’s 282 carries. Plus, Jacobs (and possibly Dixon) will pilfer many of the scoring opportunities near the goal line. There are too many factors that will prohibit Gore from preserving his role as a top ten back, and he should not be targeted until round five.
After seven seasons in New York, Jacobs will also be inserted into the deep competition at RB. He has not run for 1000+ yards since 2008, and his production has declined steadily since that time. As has his workload, which has consisted of only 149.5 attempts in the past two years, after surpassing 220 just once in his career. But with 16 TDs in the past two seasons, he remains very capable of finding the end zone. That would be his primary value for the 49ers, if he can demonstrate his usefulness in his battle with other backs for playing time. San Francisco did not make a sizable investment in Jacobs, signing him to just a one-year deal. So he must perform effectively in training camp in order to capture a role with the team. If he remains with the Niners throughout the summer as expected, he is worthy of a late round selection, and Dixon will be the odd man out.
James ran for over 5,000 yards (5,082) and 53 TDs in three collegiate seasons, and will bring big play potential to the Niners’ offense. While he is undersized, the comparisons to Darren Sproles have been prevalent, and we have certainly witnessed enough evidence that a smaller back can be difference maker in the NFL. Since the team utilized a lofty draft pick, then signed James to a four-year contract, they obviously envision a role of some magnitude. His greatest challenge, will be capturing meaningful touches amid such a large collection of options. James should eventually secure a role in San Francisco’s offense, although he is only worth a late round flier in standard leagues. However, he does merit a mid to late round selection in dynasty leagues.
When Gore only generated 148 yards and 2.5 YPC last September, Hunter became a legitimate candidate for a reasonable workload, and an appealing option for fantasy owners. But once Gore underwent his mystical retransformation into an extremely productive back, Hunter’s role was limited, and he finished the year with just 112 attempts, 473 yards, and two scores. Now, he is being forced to fight for playing time. The selection of James poses the largest threat to Hunter, since their roles would be most similar. But that does not necessarily mean that Hunter will be jettisoned from the roster. Still, the 49ers appear to have categorized Hunter as a “change of pace” back, and there are too many roadblocks that will stifle him this season. Until something changes, there is no reason for you to draft him.
Crabtree was the tenth player selected in the 2009 draft, and the second WR chosen overall. But in his first three seasons, he has averaged just 44 receptions, 747 yards, and four TDs. His value has been surpassed by a number of wideouts from the same draft class, including Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace, Jeremy Maclin, Percy Harvin, and Kenny Britt. Rather than waiting to see if Crabtree could overcome his history of injuries, and unimposing performances, Baalke signed Manningham and Moss, then drafted Jenkins. On the plus side, Crabtree won’t even turn 25 until September, established a career high with 72 receptions last season, and his willingness to block will cement him in the Niners’ starting lineup. But there are now too many targets in this offense, to realistically expect considerably better numbers in his fourth year. You should take you cue from the 49ers, and avoid any massive dependence upon Crabtree as a major contributor on your roster this season. He is at best an eighth round selection on draft day.
Not only did Manningham collect an unforgettable reception that ignited the Giants’ game winning drive in Super Bowl XLVI, but his postseason contributions were commendable, as he captured 13 passes for 189 yards, while scoring three times. However, he certainly did not have a great 2011 regular season, managing just 39 catches, 523 yards and four TDs, which essentially was 50% of that production that he generated in 2010 (60 receptions, 944 yards and nine TDs). He also allowed Victor Cruz to vault above him on the Giants’ depth chart, and was downgraded to being the team’s No. 3 WR. That role could easily persist this season with the Niners, as Moss will supply viable competition for the starting slot opposite Crabtree, and Jenkins will become an increasing factor in the 49ers’ offensive strategy. Plus, Manningham just has not proven that he can be entrusted with a consistent starting slot. You should expect similar numbers to last season, and not draft Manningham before round 11.
It is interesting how much buzz his signing created in some circles, considering how little he has accomplished recently. Moss suited up for three different teams in 2010, and only managed to catch 28 passes. Last year he was absent from the NFL completely. The optimistic belief, is that he will be fully motivated to perform for the Niners, since they possess a realistic chance of appearing in the Super Bowl. Just as he did upon his arrival in New England, before that relationship degenerated. However, he was 30 years old when he first suited up for the Patriots, and it is a stretch to believe that at 35, he can magically turn back the clock to such an enormous degree. Yet, it is possible, that he could secure a starting slot opposite Crabtree, and might even supply Smith with a consistent red zone threat. While that makes him worthy of a 10th-12th round selection in many leagues, remember that any production Moss might provide is dependent largely upon his willingness to compete. His contract is merely for one year, contains no guarantees, and San Francisco is under no obligation to utilize him should his commitment waver.
A. J. Jenkins
He collected 146 passes, generated over 2,000 yards, and scored 15 TDs in his final two collegiate seasons. Now, he will now take his place at the back of the WR procession. Jenkins combines size and speed, with a willingness to venture across the middle. And given his status as a first round draft pick, the team will definitely be willing to provide him with the opportunity to perform. But he will face multiple obstacles toward garnering a sizable number of snaps. If a combination of events were to occur… another Crabtree injury, a lack of effort by Moss, and Manningham being unable to locate the same page that Smith is utilizing… then he could find himself making consistent contributions to the 49er passing attack sooner than expected. But unless you are in a dynasty league, invest nothing more than a late round flier on Jenkins during your draft.
Since the 49er offense has experienced such a massive amount of roster additions, is it actually possible that Smith’s fantasy value has been enhanced? In a word… no. At least, not to the degree that you should ponder his selection as anything more than a late round No. 2. And even then, only if you are exceedingly confident that your top signal caller will remain healthy, and under center. While his efficiency and QB rating improved last season, he still only threw 17 scoring passes, a total that was surpassed by 16 other QBs. And he was just 19th in passing yardage with 3,150. Even though the offense now contains more potential firepower, Smith is not suddenly going to morph into a desired fantasy option. Do yourself a favor, and search elsewhere on draft day.